The legal truth behind MAFS and other reality shows

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We had a client pose a serious question to us this week that is no doubt on the tip of everybody’s tongue – “Do the people who get married on ‘Married at First Sight’ (MAFS) have to wait a full year to get a divorce after the show like people who get married the normal way?”

The client was referring to the legal requirement in Australia that parties who are married be officially separated for at least one year continuously before they are able to apply for a divorce.

Fortunately for ‘MAFS’ participants, who almost always break up in an inglorious shower of controversy, there is no such requirement because they are never married in the first place.

The lavish weddings are all for show, so too the histrionics that often unravel as each season progresses, and neither party owes any legal obligation to the other when filming wraps.

In fact, the only legal relationship in these types of television shows is the between the production company and the participants who enter into a contract, which sets out what each party gets out of the deal.

In relation to shows like ‘MAFS’, where there is no “winner” per se, the participants agree to record their interactions with other participants and participate in contrived activities developed by producers in return for a pay packet, a shot at fame, and perhaps for some a genuine chance of finding their one true love.

The money each participant receives is usually relatively small, something like minimum wage, for each week that they appear on the show, with most participants not making ‘bank’ until they take advantage of their 15 minutes of fame after the show and become an ‘influencer’ or have a stint on breakfast radio.

Other reality television shows have a legitimate cash prize awarded to the winner to entice participants to sign up, like ‘Survivor’ and ‘The Amazing Race’. Contestants on these types of shows enter into a contract with the production company to be filmed attempting various challenges and interacting with other contestants for a shot at a big payday. In addition to prize money, participants in these shows are usually contractually entitled to some sort of stipend to cover their expenses while filming.

Shows like ‘The Voice’ and ‘Australian Idol’ usually require contestants to sign a contract that prohibits them from releasing music other than via music labels run by the relevant show for a period of time after filming has stopped. These contracts are almost always one-sided and in favour of the record label to ensure they make most of the money generated by artists who appear on the show – at least in the immediate aftermath.

The quid pro quo is that the artist gets publicity and a level of fame they otherwise may never have achieved but for appearing on the show.
TV contracts also cover things like non-disclosure as footage is often not broadcast until well after it is filmed and no one likes a spoiler.

Participants in reality TV often find themselves in hot water (for example in shows like ‘MAFS’) for revealing things that happened on the show before they have officially aired (for example fake spouse one revealing that they “broke up” with fake spouse two well before filming wrapped).

When all is said and done TV contracts are just like any other type of contract. Each party agrees to do something in exchange for some kind of benefit and if one party breaches their obligations they may be liable to the other party for any loss they suffer in the form of damages.

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