How to avoid making “exploitative” TV

Attorney Jeffrey Sveen
(for non-Flash version of this interview, please see below)

TO: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
RE: The Old Believers “docu-series”

At an all-hands staff meeting in September 2012, you asked a vital question: When making a National Geographic TV series about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” how do you find the proper “balance” and avoid making “exploitative” TV?

Here’s one simple way: Treat the people in our TV shows with respect. Approach them as partners and collaborators, not as entertainment assets. Be decent. Be transparent. Share. These people are trusting our Society to tell their stories to the world, and for that we owe them far more than just a paycheck.

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Consider, for example, a new National Geographic “docu-series” that’s about to begin shooting in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. The show focuses on a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers, many of whom are now being recruited to appear in the series. Are we approaching them as creative partners? Are we offering them firm guarantees that we will produce a show that’s “balanced” and avoids “exploitation”? People in Alaska are wondering….

A few days ago, one resident of Nikolaevsk sent me an unsolicited copy of the “talent services agreement,” a 14-page legal contract that the “artists” must sign if they want to participate — and to get paid. This resident also asked me a question: What does this 14-page document say? What exactly do we get by participating — and what are we signing away?

Jeffrey Sveen

Jeffrey Sveen

I’m not a lawyer, so I sent the contract to Jeffrey Sveen. He’s the attorney who represents the Hutterites in their on-going attempt to persuade our Society to make right what went horribly wrong with National Geographic’s Meet The Hutterites reality series. Mr. Sveen generously agreed to review the contract, and to translate the legalese into plain English.

Listen to Mr. Sveen’s analysis and it’s hard to shake the feeling that even before the producers unpack their cameras, our show is already out of “balance.” In short, the contract seems to say to the people of Nikolaevsk: We agree to give you a paycheck to participate, but beyond that, we promise you nothing at all. 

What do you think, John? If you want to avoid an “exploitative” TV show about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” is this a good way to begin?


“Talent services agreement” for Old Believers TV series

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