After multiple legal letters have been sent to NBCUniversal regarding the treatment of the company’s reality stars — a fight that was kickstarted by former “Real Housewives” star Bethenny Frankel — Bravo is firing back, by clarifying on the record that the network does not silence cast members through non-disclosure agreements.
Frankel has been vocal that she wants reality TV stars get better working conditions, payment, protections and possibly unionize. On Aug. 20, lawyers working with Frankel claimed that NBCUniversal holds reality stars and crew members to NDAs that prohibit them from discussing alleged mistreatment and has threatened them, should they speak out.
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NBCUniversal says the company does not hold its reality stars or crew members to non-disclosure agreements for the purpose of forbidding them from speaking about their time working on shows, and does not prohibit them from reporting mistreatment. To clarify the purpose of their confidentiality agreements, a Bravo spokesperson tells Variety that NDAs are utilized to protect storylines on shows, but not to block individuals from speaking about their personal experiences.
“Confidentiality clauses are standard practice in reality programming to prevent disclosure of storylines prior to air. They are not intended to prevent disclosure by cast and crew of unlawful acts in the workplace, and they have not been enforced in that manner,” a spokesperson for Bravo tells Variety exclusively. “To be clear: any current or former cast or crew is free to discuss and disclose any allegedly unlawful acts in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination, or any other conduct they have reason to believe is inappropriate. We are also working with our third party production companies to remind all cast and crew that they are encouraged to report any such concerns through the channels made available by the production company so concerns can be promptly addressed.”
Bravo and NBCUniversal require third-party production companies to provide cast and crew with multiple ways to report workplace misconduct, and require production training protocols to provide information about reporting channels, according to an individual familiar with company protocol, who adds that producers in business with NBCUniversal are instructed to provide cast and crew with information on reporting channels or hotlines on their daily call sheets to ensure staffers know how to raise a concern.
The response from NBCUniversal — which is the parent company to Bravo, E!, Oxygen, USA, Peacock, CNBC and more — comes after the company has received legal letters from powerhouse attorneys, Bryan Freedman and Mark Geragos, who are backing Frankel’s efforts. The lawyers working with Frankel say they are representing reality stars and crew members who allege they have experienced mistreatment on reality series at NBCUniversal.
Earlier this month, Freedman and Geragos went to war with NBCUniversal, sending a litigation hold notice that warned the “day of reckoning” had come. The lawyers said that reality stars have been subject to “grotesque and depraved mistreatment,” including claims of denying mental health treatment, deliberately fueling cast members with alcohol and depriving them of sleep and food during filming, covering up acts of sexual violence, exploiting minors for uncompensated appearances and revenge porn.
Last Saturday, Freedman wrote in a letter to NBCUniversal’s general counsel that his investigation into these allegations has uncovered serious claims of “wrongdoing,” but that he will not know the full extent of the issues until these individuals are released from their NDAs. He wrote that NBCUniversal contracts contain nondisclosure agreements, which he says are unlawful.
“We are left with the inescapable conclusion that NBC and its production partners are grappling with systemic rot for which sunlight is the first necessary remedial measure,” Freedman wrote on August 20. “To date, that has been impossible owing to the draconian terms of NBC’s contracts with its cast and crew, which contain onerous confidentiality provisions coupled with ruinous penalties for breach. To ensure silence, NBC has been wielding these contractual terms like a sword.”
Freedman did not immediately respond to Variety for comment, regarding NBCUniversal’s response on their use of NDAs. But in a previous letter to NBCUniversal, the attorney wrote that the company has “turned a blind eye” to its production partners enforcing “illegal” NDAs to “hide civil and criminal wrongs.”
Variety first broke the news that Freedman and Geragos were working with Frankel, after she said reality stars should unionize. SAG-AFTRA has also backed Frankel’s efforts, engaging in discussions with Freedman regarding the treatment of reality performers, and issuing a statement to the media that the union is “tired of studios and production companies trying to circumvent” them “to exploit the talent that they rely upon to make their product.”
After Freedman and Geragos brought claims against NBCUniversal, the company issued a statement denying the allegations of mistreatment: “NBCUniversal is committed to maintaining a safe and respectful workplace for cast and crew on our reality shows. At the outset, we require our third-party production partners to have appropriate workplace policies and training in place. If complaints are brought to our attention, we work with our production partners to ensure that timely, appropriate action is or has been taken, including investigations, medical and/or psychological support, and other remedial action that may be warranted such as personnel changes.”
Frankel is one of the most successful stars to come Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise. As she rose to fame on “The Real Housewives of New York City” and starred in her own spinoff series at the network, she founded her own company, Skinnygirl, which she sold for over $100 million, and has continued with her entrepreneurial and philanthropic efforts. Last week, Frankel had “Vanderpump Rules” star Raquel Leviss as a guest on her podcast to discuss her treatment by Bravo amid the #Scandoval.
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