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Last month, millions of television viewers watched scantily clad contestants on the NBC reality show "Fear Factor" dip their heads into vats of animal lard to retrieve cow tongues and then exchange them using their mouths.
Perhaps no one was watching the stunt more closely than Jon Paulsen, chief underwriting officer of the entertainment division at the St. Paul Travelers Companies Inc., which insures "Fear Factor" and several other popular reality shows.
Three weeks earlier, Paulsen and his team of risk-control analysts had questioned, analyzed and triple-checked every detail of the stunt. The cow tongues had to be properly cooked and certified as safe to eat by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the animal lard had to be fresh from a supermarket freezer.
"Watching television has changed for me," Paulsen said. "I chew my nails hoping they do exactly what they said they would."
This fall, the networks unveiled nearly a dozen new reality shows, including "Renovate My Family," in which entire families receive make-overs, "The Contender," one of two new shows featuring ordinary folk sparring in the ring, and "The Benefactor," in which a billionaire businessman gives away part of his fortune.
That's on top of the regular lineup of return hits such as "Survivor,"The Bachelor" and "Joe Millionaire."
Love or loathe them, the shows would not exist were it not for a handful of big insurance companies, including St. Paul Travelers, American International Group of New York and Fireman's Fund Insurance Companies of Novato, Calif.
Before contestants of "Fear Factor" can jump from helicopters or "Survivor" participants can paddle up a muddy river in the Brazilian jungle, the TV producers must find companies willing to compensate them in case someone breaks a limb or returns home with mental scars.
Just five years ago, some media analysts thought the genre would fail precisely because it was so difficult to insure. A handful of multimillion-dollar lawsuits would lead to soaring premiums, they predicted, and that would force producers to go back to making more cerebral drama shows, such as "Law and Order" or "The Practice."
But surprisingly few incidents have occurred, and the insurance companies deserve much of the credit for working behind the scenes to remove risks, say media analysts.
"One death. One dismemberment. That's all it could take to end reality television," said Kenneth Wefer, owner of LMC Group, an engineering company based in Los Angeles that helps insurers evaluate stunts. "That's why it's crucial that insurers are involved. ...Without them, reality TV might not exist."
But the risks of reality programming have grown with each new season. Many of the earlier concepts are beginning to bore viewers, and networks are under pressure to come up with fresh stunts and more offbeat concepts. Though lawsuits are few, they are starting to materialize.
"We do insure some reality TV, but it is getting more and more difficult as the shows get increasingly outrageous," said David Hilgen, a spokesman for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies in Warren, N.J.
Reality television proved much too real for Philip Zelnick, who is suing the new "Candid Camera" for persuading him to lie on a conveyor belt and go through an airport X-ray machine. Zelnick claimed he suffered bruises and bleeding after he got stuck in the fake scanner and accused the Pax television network of battery, negligence, false imprisonment and emotional distress.
A suit also has been filed against the MTV show "Harassment." James and Laurie Ann Ryan checked into a Las Vegas hotel only to find themselves ensnared in an elaborate gag with the cameras rolling. They found a fake body in their bathroom, and a hotel guard and paramedic stopped them from leaving. The couple is now suing MTV for emotional distress.
St. Paul Travelers does not insure either "Harassment" or "Candid Camera."
Unpredictability is part of the allure of reality TV, but it's also what makes it a risky bet for insurers. Even those who emerge from the stunts unscathed can sue for character defamation or emotional distress. Contestants typically sign thick waivers promising not to sue, but a sympathetic judge can dismiss these waivers if the show's producers are found to be negligent.
"If someone is seriously hurt, they will find ways to poke holes in the waivers," said John Hamby, senior vice president and entertainment practice leader at Marsh Inc. of New York, one of the world's largest insurance firms. "They can always say they didn't really understand what they were getting into."
One show that viewers won't see is called "Culture Shock." In it, Jill Mouser was injected with morphine and rushed to the hospital after she volunteered to be held upside down in a contraption called the "harness of pain." She sued CBS and the producer of the pilot show, which never aired, claiming they concealed how much pain she would endure.
"It's not good television to have injuries," said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, a nonprofit group based in New York that monitors lawsuits involving the media. "People want to see challenge and excitement, not death or disfigurement."
That is why Paulsen and his colleagues at the St. Paul take their jobs so seriously. Up to six risk-control specialists analyze the script of stunts to see if producers are putting people at risk of bodily or psychological injury, Paulsen said. Often, they will visit the stunt sites to check whether the equipment, such as the ropes and harnesses, is in good condition.
Nearly every aspect of "Fear Factor" is vetted by risk-control specialists. All of the meat contestants eat on the show must clear USDA inspection; the insects are examined in labs for harmful enzymes; the cars used in the stunts must run on fuel cells, instead of gas, to prevent incineration, and professionals must test the stunts before contestants attempt them.
"In each case, I ask myself, 'Would my 12-year-old son do it?' " Paulsen said. "If he thinks it's cool, then it's probably worth doing."
For insurers, the potential rewards are high. Insurance rates on a reality TV show with physical stunts can be 20 to 50 percent higher than a standard program shot in a studio, Paulsen said. Last year, St. Paul Travelers collected about $110 million in premiums from its entertainment unit, with a portion of that coming from reality programming, Paulsen said.
"For now, reality TV is the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment insurance industry," he said.
Paulsen doesn't approve every script. The company recently declined to insure a complicated hidden camera stunt that called for people to jump out of a plane with parachutes after the pilots pretended the engine was failing.
"What happens if the parachutes don't open or if the plane crashes?" Paulsen asked. "Normal citizens bailing out of airplanes is exciting, but there were too many uncontrollables."
And like many other insurers, St. Paul Travelers refuses to underwrite so-called "ambush" shows, in which hidden cameras tape people's reactions to intricate pranks. The producers of such shows hope those being filmed will give them permission to air the episode after they've been humiliated or frightened. People have been known to sign waivers and then sue for defamation of character or invasion of privacy after being embarrassed on prime-time TV.
In a recent episode of "Scare Tactics," which airs on the Sci Fi Channel, producers tricked Kara Blanc into believing she won an invitation to an exclusive Hollywood party. But the car taking her to the event stalled in the California desert, and she was forced to watch her two actor friends, who were in on the prank, being killed by a costumed alien. Blanc claimed in a lawsuit that she suffered "severe emotional distress."
Even seemingly harmless shows, such as ABC's "The Bachelor," in which 25 single women compete for a marriage proposal, pose risks to insurers.
"The whole point of shows like 'The Bachelor' is to humiliate, to show who is not going to be with this or that individual," said Martin Ridgers, partner and director of underwriting at Entertainment Brokers International of Los Angeles, which underwrites some reality TV shows. "And it's one of the more benign shows out there."
Copyright infringement is another major concern. Fox's "The Billionaire" is considered by some to be an offshoot of NBC's "The Apprentice"; and ABC's "Wife Swap" resembles Fox's "Trading Spouses." In a 2001 lawsuit, the creators of "Survivor" accused Fox's "Boot Camp" of stealing its concept.
So far, however, the biggest loss that St. Paul Travelers has suffered is having to pay $200,000 to replace four cameras that got wet while a crew was filming on a tropical island.
"Right now, I feel [the producers] have engineered out most of the risks," Paulsen said. "But if this push for bigger, better means someone gets significantly injured, then all bets are off."
Chris Serres is at email@example.com.
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