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Only one episode of this season of The Bachelorette has aired, but JoJo Fletcher’s fate is already posted online thanks to Reality Steve, who has been spoiling the show for the better part of a decade — despite the wrath of Hollywood lawyers.
In 2012, Steve Carbone settled the first of two lawsuits brought by producers of ABC’s The Bachelor franchise. For at least five years, he agreed not to solicit any information about the show from cast or crew members. (The second suit also ended in a settlement, but that one is confidential.)
The lawsuits may have changed Carbone’s tactics, but they haven’t slowed him down. Spoiling is now his full-time job.
He says the show takes itself too seriously and, while he doesn’t consider himself a journalist, he feels compelled to shine a light on what really happens behind the scenes. “The outcome of this is a TV romance that will probably end in three to six months anyway,” he says. “Ultimately the prize on this show is not much of a prize. It’s a failed relationship.”
The terms of the settlement require only that he not solicit information from people under contract to the show. He waits for spoilers to come to him — and they do, says Carbone, through hundreds of email and phone tips each season from those with peripheral ties to the shows.
Carbone won’t reveal his sources, but he says they don’t include current contestants because they are now “way too scared” to talk due to a $5 million penalty imposed by producers for divulging secrets.
“They’ve had 32 seasons of the show, that’s over 800 contestants now, and not one of them has ever been sued for leaking information,” Carbone says. “I think [producers] know they can’t control certain things.”
Legal experts say as long as Carbone refrains from inducing employees to breach contracts (in 2011, he was caught offering a contestant $2,500 to spill details), the odds are in his favor if he were to be sued again.
“The law doesn’t have a good mechanism in place to prevent someone in his position from posting spoilers in advance,” says litigator Aaron Bloom. “It’s very difficult to get a court to issue an order that amounts to prior restraint on speech.”
So an injunction to stop Carbone from posting spoilers is out of the question, but even a damages request would face several hurdles.
“The anti-SLAPP statute is looming over all of this,” says litigator Alex Weingarten. “I don’t think it should be covered, but California courts take an extremely broad view of what’s covered under the statute.”
If they survived an anti-SLAPP motion, which kills lawsuits resulting from protected activity, producers would then have to prove that Reality Steve’s site causes fewer people to watch the series, resulting in lower ad revenue.
“There is an argument that can be made that his publication of these spoilers reduces the ratings of the show,” says litigator Ricardo Cestero. But “that harm is not going to be a sufficiently compelling reason to curtail Steve’s First Amendment rights to blog about whatever he wants to blog about.”
They agree the show’s best legal option is going after any contestants or crew members who spill secrets, or better — preventing the leaks in the first place.
“It’s really unfortunate, but their remedy is with the people they have contracts with,” says attorney Ashley Yeargan, adding that the show’s producers would likely hesitate before penalizing one of its stars. “If someone like Ben is making them millions of dollars, they may be willing to look the other way if they’re losing a few eyeballs to Reality Steve.”
Weingarten agrees. “You don’t have some coalition of reality television show producers that are up in arms about [spoilers],” he says. “My guess is a lot of them just don’t care.”
Carbone says he’s learned from his mistake and won’t cross any legal lines, even after the settlement expires.
“I don’t even want to go that route,” he says. “I’m walking on thin ice if I do and there’s no need to.”
The Bachelor franchise largely operates as if Carbone doesn’t exist, but creator Mike Fleiss has started sharing his own teasers via Twitter to satisfy curious fans. They’re mostly behind the scenes photos with quirky commentary, so they don’t give too much away.
ABC and producer Warner Horizon declined to comment, but Carbone says one thing could stop his spoilers: a big check.
“Everyone’s got a price,” he says, adding the show would never pay him off. “It would be admitting that they were defeated and they can’t control a one-man operation out of Dallas.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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