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Reality TV Newbies' Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions Answered by An Entertainment Expert

02/27/2015 06:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

The most important person in a reality television star's life is their entertainment attorney, at least in the beginning. Later on, when you're famous, you'll have agents, managers and other people holding your hand. But when you first get into the entertainment business, the first things you'll have to do are negotiate a development deal, and then hopefully, a contract for a show with a network.

Here's the thing, good entertainment attorneys aren't that easy to gain access to -- they're seriously busy, very expensive, and most of the time you need a referral. If you know someone in the reality television business already, get a referral from them. It's the easiest route. Or reach out to a reality celebrity you have a social media relationship with -- I get questions all the time via Facebook and Twitter.

Depending on the kind of show, the network and whether or not your business is involved, you can easily spend anywhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $15,000 on legal fees before you finish production of the first season.

Keeping in mind that most of the information requests and panicked questions I get from complete strangers considering dipping their toes into the reality pond are usually things I reply to with the question "do you have an entertainment attorney?" I thought it would be helpful to ask an entertainment attorney to actually answer them for us. And she agreed.

Nicole Page, a Head of Entertainment and Media Law at Reavis Parent Lehrer in New York, and Chair of the Board of Women Make Movies, represents numerous reality television clients, in addition to production companies. She's also spent years working in television development, so she has a dual-sided perspective on the industry. And she doesn't cut cards when you ask a question. So I asked her a few.

These are the kinds of questions and answers that belong in a "Dummies" book for aspiring reality TV talent, but since that book doesn't exist, we'll start here. I asked my entertainment law expert Nicole Page:

1. What is a development agreement, versus a "real" contract? Does this mean I'm guaranteed a show or not? Is it okay that they're asking me to invest in a demo or "sizzle" reel to show networks?

Nicole says: A contract is a contract and any time you are signing an agreement, even an appearance release, have an attorney review it. A development agreement is the first step in the process. It generally ties you to a producer who will then shop the project with you attached to a network. If the network bites and wants to move forward, you will then be asked to sign a participation or talent agreement. As talent, you should never pay for a sizzle reel. Any reputable production company will fund the production of the sizzle. If however, you have spent the money already, I hope you have an agreement in place that states you co-own the sizzle with the producer.

2. Will I be under contract to a network eventually or working for the production company? Who is my boss? Do I have a boss?

Nicole says: You may be signed directly to the network or you could be signed to the production company. Even if you are signed to the production company, however, your ultimate "boss" is the network. If you are the main character in a series, you will have to adhere to network policies and, oftentimes, while the contract may be between you and the production company, the network is also named in the contract so that your obligations will extend to both the production company and the network.

3. Do I need an agent to help me with my first season of a new show?

Nicole says: Possibly, but only if the agent is really going to go to bat for you. Success breeds success. Good agents become not only interested in you, but also more valuable to you, once your show is a hit. At that point, there is the chance to negotiate for more money and better terms. Early in the game, the talent does not have that much leverage, especially when they are not a celebrity.

4. How long should a development agreement last? How long do they own me? If they don't sell my show, do I have to stick with them?

Nicole says: This is all negotiable but the standard term of a development agreement ranges from 6-12 months. Sometimes companies include "sunset" provisions in their agreements so that even after the term ends, the company may still be attached as producer for a certain period of time. These are the types of provisions your attorney should look for and advise you about.

5. If my business is involved in the show, what's the biggest thing I need to worry about?

Nicole says: In some cases (think "Cake Boss"), having your business featured on a reality show is a boon. But you must be aware that once you sign on for a show, you will not have control over how your business is portrayed. Do not expect to be allowed in the edit room or to have the chance to watch cuts of the show before it airs. That doesn't happen. So there is always some degree of risk regarding how your business will be depicted. Separately, people don't realize how much time shooting a reality show actually takes. You have to be prepared for the fact that you and your employees may find yourselves spending more time shooting and less time running the business and that could impose a financial cost.

Finally, be prepared for the network to ask for a percentage of the proceeds from your business. The network position is that by broadcasting your series, they are providing you with more advertising than money can buy and if they create a platform for you to create a wildly lucrative bakery or hair salon, then they are entitled to profit from it as well.

6. Are they really allowed to play tricks on us to up the drama? I've heard stories of production companies doing really outrageous stuff to get reactions when they're filming.

Nicole says:
I don't think that kind of thing is universal but I think it can and does occur on occasion.

7. Can I take off my microphone and take a break when I need it? Can I tell them to stop filming whenever I want? Can I just walk away if I need to?

Nicole says: If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation or just need a rest then just speak up. The production process should be collaborative and respectful.

8. Why do I have to do a full background check?

Nicole says: Unfortunately, background checks are now standard because there have been several ugly situations where a network included someone on a show and later discovered that the individual had serious skeletons in the closet. Just recently TLC pulled its very successful show "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" after the mother on the show began dating a known sex offender. Despite the maxim that "all publicity is good publicity," TLC did not want to be associated with that kind of criminal conduct and pulled the show. When a network elects to air a series, they are thinking about their brand and advertising dollars. So they are checking you out because they don't want to pay for a show about you and then later discover you are an axe murderer. If the network brand is tainted, ratings can drop and ad dollars disappear. Networks will simply not take that risk.

9. What if I hate it? What are the consequences? If I don't get paid til it's finished anyway, why can't I just say forget it and walk away, or kick them out of my business?

Nicole says: Well, because you've signed a contract and the network has put up a lot of money to make a series about you. So if you walk in the middle, you are likely to be in breach of contract and could find yourself defending a lawsuit.

10. What does it mean when I grant them "access" to my home or business? Can I set the rules about where the cameras are? What kind of "alterations" will they want to make to my business?

Nicole says: Your home and your business belong to you. You can absolutely set rules about where the cameras are. If "alterations" are being made, that should be paid for by the network but nothing should be done without your prior consent.

Okay, so now it's not just me telling you that you won't have an opportunity to see the show before it airs and that you don't get to participate in the editing. If you're seriously considering participating in a reality show and you haven't gotten legal advice from an entertainment expert, you absolutely positively must make that your next step.

It doesn't matter if you don't own a business, or you don't feel like you have a lot of assets to protect, take a look at some of the reality star successes that have you actually considering taking this on in the first place. That said, it can go equally bad. Just take a look at Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, once famous for "The Hills." Now they're on WEtv's "Marriage Boot Camp" talking about how reality television producers ruined their lives.

If I had to take a bet, I'd say they didn't have good entertainment attorneys when they signed up for their first shows.

Good luck!