I've noticed in the first and second season of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice", there were some characters who I sort of felt might be paid by Trump to act outrageous and pull certain stunts in order to ensure entertainment and better ratings for the show.

It's easy to imagine that the reality show character could be paid to act a certain way and really sell their act, signing an NDA with no expiration in order to keep the show's credibility.

The problem I see with that idea however, is: The person, at any point in the future, might have much less to lose by revealing the secret than the show's producer would lose, perhaps demanding more and more money to maintain silence.

So I have a few legal questions about this particular example:

  • Is it legal to describe/present a show as a reality TV show, while hiring contestants secretly to put on an act?

  • How far can a company go to keep the agreeing contestant silent? Can they take extreme measures such as basically signing his life away, agreeing to pay more money than he possibly could or some other extreme punishment for breaking the agreement?

In other words, is it legal and is it feasible to pull off such an agreement in this particular situation, while being confident that the contestant won't be able to share the secret because of contractual penalties?

2 Answers 2


Regarding the question of whether someone can present a show as "real" while actually staging aspects of it: The "quiz show" scandals of the 1950s are probably as bad as it can get. They prompted Congress to pass laws (47 U.S.C. §509) making it a crime "to deceive the listening or viewing public" in something that purports to be a contest of knowledge, skill, or chance.

However, "reality TV" falls more into the realm of magic shows: The magician pretends he can suspend the laws of physics, and the audience pretends to believe him. Stage magic is not illegal, but it is protected by NDAs, insiders, and other contracts and customs. AFAIK it's a good analogy for reality TV: Even if viewers don't catch the vague disclaimers that often attach to such shows, these days it is unlikely that anyone will drum up enough sympathy for a claim that they were duped or damaged by discovering that reality TV was "less real than it appeared."

Regarding disclosures: The value of a show only decreases with time. And there are already plenty of unintentional leaks about scripted moments and situations on ostensibly unscripted shows. (In fact, some "leaks" themselves are suspected to be intentional or scripted to drive up demand for the show.)

Yes, in all jurisdictions with which I'm familiar, someone can be bound by an NDA for life. Contracts are supposed to be effective, but parties can and do breach them all the time.

However, due to the nature of entertainment, the more time passes, the less financial damage can be done by violating the NDA. Eventually the damage is low enough that, even without permission, individuals may conclude that the likelihood of being found and sued for violating their NDA is low enough that they may disregard it.

  • I wonder why they needed a separate law for this and couldn't just use the anti-fraud stautes? Commented May 21, 2016 at 17:07
  • @Mowzer - Perhaps it wasn't clear that anything was being unfairly gained through the deception? The only thing I can think of would be "attention," which certainly today we know is worth money. But a net cast for "people who get attention through deception" would have an awfully broad catch!
    – feetwet
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 17:14

This was partially the concept of the first two seasons of The Joe Schmo Show: hire a bunch of actors to fulfill typical reality show stereotypes, with one Schmo unaware they're the only muggle.

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