Australia: Reality TV twist as former contestant found to be an employee of television network

In a landmark ruling, the NSW Workers Compensation Commission has recently ruled that a former reality TV contestant was an employee of Channel 7 and entitled to compensation for injuries suffered.

Nicole Prince was a contestant on the TV series House Rules which aired during 2017. Ms Prince appeared alongside friend, Fiona Taylor, on the show which saw state-based couples renovate each other's homes and compete for scores with the winners receiving $200,000.

Ms Prince initiated a compensation claim, seeking a general order for medical expenses in respect of a psychiatric injury suffered as a result of her participation on the show. Ms Prince stated that she was fit and healthy at the time she started on the show.

Ms Prince's claim stated that she "felt harassed and bullied during the filming" and that this behaviour was "not only condoned by the producer, but it was aggravated [and] even encouraged by them". Ms Prince claimed that since the program went to air in 2017 she has not been able to obtain work, and is no longer offered interviews for positions when she previously had no problem reaching interview stage. Ms Prince asserted that this was due to the portrayal of her by Channel 7 as a bully.

Ms Prince stated that on one occasion she witnessed her partner on the show, Ms Taylor, be physically assaulted and when this complaint was made to Channel 7, the pair were threatened with a negative portrayal of them by the network. Ms Prince states that Channel 7 were then "true to their threatening words" and did in fact portray the pair as bullies.

Ms Prince also detailed the online abuse she suffered, particularly via the Channel 7 Facebook page, and how this abuse has been brought to the attention of Channel 7 who have failed to take any action to address it.

The issues in contention that the Commission had to determine were:

  1. whether Ms Prince was a "worker" or "deemed worker"; and
  2. whether Ms Prince suffered an injury compensable under the workers compensation legislation.

The Commission determined that the relationship between Ms Prince and Channel 7 was most appropriately categorised as that of employee and employer. The Commission relied on a number of factors to make this determination and the considerations given weight by the Commission provide further insight into the criteria which was used to determine the 'employee or contractor' question. These included:

  • The rate of remuneration and frequency of payment was set by Channel 7;
  • Ms Prince was an integral part of the show;
  • Channel 7 had exclusive use of Ms Prince for every hour of every day during which the show was being filmed;
  • Channel 7 had had the power to veto Ms Prince wearing certain clothes and she was unable to wear any items which displayed business or brand names;
  • The rules of the show provided that Ms Prince was a public face of Channel 7's business;
  • Channel 7 paid Ms Prince an allowance for weekly expenses;
  • Ms Prince took no risk as an entrepreneur running her own business;
  • The activity being carried out by the contestants was for the benefit of Channel 7 and any goodwill vested in Channel 7;
  • Tasks were commenced and completed at Channel 7's direction;
  • Channel 7 provided the tools and materials to use;
  • Ms Prince did not employ any one else to carry out work other than tradespersons which were approved by Channel 7 and paid out of a budget allocated by Channel 7.

This case is another reminder that when determining the status of an employee or contractor, the totality of the relationship must be considered, regardless of the name applied to it by the parties or even the contracts which are entered into.

In this case, the contestants on the show, including Ms Prince, signed contracts stating:

"You acknowledge that your participation in the program is not employment, does not create an employer/employee relationship between Seven and you and is not subject to any award or collective bargaining or workplace agreement and does not entitle you to any wages, salary, corporate benefits, superannuation, workers compensation benefits or any other compensation."

Ms Prince submitted that this clause was ultimately an attempt by Channel 7 to oust any rights she had as a worker, however, the true nature of the relationship was that of an employer/employee. The Commission agreed.

The Commission noted that there was little doubt that Ms Prince was placed in a "hostile and adversarial environment" in the course of her employment, and that footage from the program was edited in such a selective manner to portray Ms Prince and Ms Taylor in a certain negative light. The Commission noted that it was "extraordinary" that Channel 7 did not take steps to either remove hateful comments posted on its Facebook page, or close the comments responding to its own posts, when it plainly had the ability to do so. The Commission found that this failure contributed to the injury suffered.

The Commission found that the Ms Prince's employment with Channel 7 was not only a substantial contributing factor to her injury, but was the main contributing factor to its development.

It is common knowledge that reality TV shows often cast certain contestants as "villains" and edit the extensive amount of footage taken to ensure this outcome is achieved. This ruling may yet open the door to other contestants seeking compensation for suffering similar injuries as a result of their reality TV experience.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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