'The Bachelor' Lawsuit Challenges the Legality of Spoilers
Witch hunt or winnable case? Producers sue a popular blogger for enticing insiders to reveal show secrets.
The 16th cycle of ABC's The Bachelor doesn't begin airing until Jan. 2, but readers of Stephen Carbone's website pretty much know what happens. Carbone, who operates the popular Reality Steve blog from his home in Texas, already has revealed which four finalists he says will be vying for bachelor Ben Flajnik as well as details of a romantic trip to Switzerland and which contender turns her amorous attention from Ben to another (female) contestant.
The revelations are culled from Carbone's network of Bachelor sources, and they have turned him into a leader among Hollywood's personae non gratae who regularly spoil reality competitions before they air. On Dec. 6, producers NZK Productions and Alternative Television Inc. took the rare step of suing Carbone in federal court in Los Angeles, claiming intentional interference with contracts for inducing people affiliated with The Bachelor -- sometimes with cash -- to violate confidentiality agreements. "I swear, this is the easiest money you'd ever make," an e-mail from Carbone to a Bachelor participant allegedly reads, "and you and I are the only two people that would know." Indeed, of the 24 cycles of The Bachelor, Bachelorette and Bachelor Pad, Carbone has spoiled -- in great detail -- at least a dozen, and he is almost never wrong.
Carbone, who boasts that he makes money from ads on his site, doesn't have any contract with the show. Some might argue that he and his ilk are simply a new breed of blogger-journalist who try to land scoops by any means necessary. But the "tortious interference" claim has been used against even the most esteemed members of the Fourth Estate. In 1995, CBS' news division was sued for allegedly inducing tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand to breach his confidentiality agreement by appearing on 60 Minutes, a case that never made it to trial but formed the basis of the 1999 Russell Crowe movie The Insider. And in a competitive TV landscape, where audience interest depends on the drama of who will be voted off, spoilers arguably damage ratings (though Carbone's influence is unclear; the most recent Bachelor premiere drew 8.4 million viewers, down a bit from the previous season but still strong).
For that reason, reality contracts typically come with penalties of up to $5 million for blabbing, and producers are getting serious about punishing violators. A contender on the just-concluded season of The CW's America's Next Top Model mysteriously was disqualified near the finale, leading many viewers to speculate that she was kicked off for writing about the show on Facebook. (The CW issued this statement: “After production wrapped on the current cycle of America’s Next Top Model, we learned information that made Angelea ineligible and she was subsequently disqualified from the competition. As a result, new scenes were filmed to address this for the audience during the finale.”)
In a similar case in 2010, a company run by Survivor producer Mark Burnett sued an "inducer" and eventually traced the leak to the proprietor of the website SurvivorSucks.com, which led to a contestant who was reportedly the mole. "We believe one of the purposes of this lawsuit is to try to find out who Steve's sources have been," says Carbone's lawyer Brad Kizzia, adding that he will file a counterclaim to dismiss the suit on free speech grounds. The producers and ABC declined to comment.
Of course, in the publicity-hungry reality TV world, another motive might be at work. After all, controversy typically fuels Bachelor ratings. "Steve has been doing this for years," notes Kizzia. "Why sue now? This might just be part of the promo campaign."