Unscripted Show Gets Legal Papers

Times Staff Writer

The Sci-Fi Channel seems to have reached the outer limits of “reality” TV.

A new show called “Scare Tactics,” scheduled to premiere on the Universal Studios-owned channel in April, is using hidden cameras to film the reactions of unsuspecting witnesses to horror and science-fiction-style scenarios such as haunted houses and alien abductions.

The trouble is, one of the witnesses contends she suffered real-life trauma from her experience and says she was hospitalized several times as a result of a prank involving an “extraterrestrial murderer.”

The resulting lawsuit underscores the growing risks -- and expense -- of television’s genre du jour, particularly when these unscripted programs involve everyday citizens who haven’t signed up for any role on the small screen.


In a lawsuit filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, L.A. resident Kara Blanc claims she suffered emotional and physical trauma when the cable channel and other co-conspirators allegedly abducted her and forced her to witness a staged homicide by an “alien” that she thought was real.

Blanc said she was led to believe by the organizers of the show, some of them allegedly using fictitious names, that she had won an invitation to an exclusive Hollywood party at a Southern California desert resort. She said she was traumatized after the car taking her to the party stalled along a remote stretch of desert and she was told by the people accompanying her, who are named in the suit as actors on the show, to run for her life into a nearby canyon to escape harm by an alien attacker.

The Sci-Fi Channel could not be reached for comment. Lawyers representing Blanc did not return a phone call Sunday.

Named as defendants in the case are the Sci-Fi Channel, two actors who staged the prank and the two creators of the show, Scott Hallock and Kevin Healey, and their production companies. Hallock and Healey were executive producers of NBC’s 2001 summer staged-reality hit “Spy TV,” which used hidden cameras to film comical pranks.

“Scare Tactics,” hosted by Shannen Doherty, former star of “Beverly Hills 90210,” is the Sci-Fi Channel’s first program using hidden cameras. The show is part of the network’s strategy to broaden its audience beyond the “Star Trek” crowd, building off its recent success with “Taken,” a miniseries by Steven Spielberg that broke cable ratings records.

The lawsuit is one of a growing number of complaints filed against networks and TV producers by consenting -- and in this case, non-consenting -- contestants. TV networks have increased their reliance on unscripted series such as “Fear Factor,” “Survivor” and “Joe Millionaire” because they are cheaper to produce than serial dramas and comedies. But the risks associated with some of these reality programs are starting to exact a toll, as insurance premiums rise and lawsuits proliferate.


Shows involving hidden cameras present a particularly slippery slope because contestants do not sign release forms consenting to be part of a TV show. A fitness trainer, for instance, sued the Pax Network after being tricked at an Arizona airport into lying down on an X-ray conveyor belt for a security check before boarding his plane. His leg jammed and was injured during the process. He emerged from the machine to discover that he had been filmed as part of an updated version of the 1960s TV show “Candid Camera.”

For her part, Blanc said she was hospitalized several times because of the alien prank, missing work and incurring medical costs for unspecified physical injuries and psychological trauma. Her lawsuit charges the defendants with negligence, invasion of privacy, assault, false imprisonment and fraudulent misrepresentation. It also seeks to enjoin the defendants from airing the videotapes in which Blanc said she was victimized.

Her lawsuit also requests that the court stop the producers from engaging in “the unfair, unlawful and fraudulent business practice of surreptitiously recording the traumatized reactions of any other persons in the future.”