My Kitchen Rules, The Block, Masterchef and the like dominate our screens (and lives) with their popularity lining the pockets of television networks. Some of that is due to the unregulated environment in which contestants are engaged, as they happily give up their lives and reputations for their 15 minutes of fame. However, a former House Rules contestant, who was cast in the role of "villain" and suffered psychological injuries as a result, took Channel Seven to task and won her workers' compensation case on the basis that she was an employee.
Although this certainly won't be the end as we're waiting for the appeal to be lodged, the outcome is a big deal for the reality TV industry. To date, networks have paid contestants a small stipend but not a "wage" and haven't worried about weekly hours of "work", or workers' compensation issues (which unlike other liabilities, can't be contracted out of).
Yet, when the Workers Compensation Commission looked at the House Rules arrangements, the arbitrator said there was no doubt that the contestants were providing service to Channel Seven under the network's considerable control. In other words, they were employees.
This could be the first crack in the pillar that holds up how networks engage and treat reality TV contestants. If that pillar falls, it won't be long until we see underpayment disputes, workplace bullying complaints, and more and more workers' compensation claims. A nightmare for an industry that thrives on conflict, backstabbing, and amateurs putting themselves in high risk situations for which they're entirely unqualified.
Not-so coincidentally, other reality stars have come out of the woodwork this week about their treatment from other networks. The Block contestants, Tess and Luke, accused Nine Network of bullying and portraying them as "lazy", saying that they've had to stop watching the show to protect their mental health. While they've added fuel to the fire, we don't think they'll be the last reality TV contestants to speak out.
So is this the end of reality TV as we know it? Absolutely not. This one decision does not mean we'll no longer be seeing the "good guy", the "evil doer", and the entertaining "crazy one" battle it out for our voyeuristic pleasure. However, networks, former contestants, and salivating class action lawyers are going to be watching this closely.