Frankel in the Fight: Reality Stars vs. NDAs

Isabelle Ortiz-LuisNews & Insights

In the world of reality television, nondisclosure agreements (“NDAs”) play a pivotal role in safeguarding sensitive information.[1] NDAs are legal contracts between parties that outline the terms and conditions under which confidential information is shared and protected.[2] Although NDAs have a practical utility of protecting the secrecy around certain projects,[3] there are also implications related to individual rights. Former Real Housewives star Bethenny Frankel, along with other reality TV stars,[4]  have publicly criticized the use of NDAs in unscripted television and demand that NBCUniversal and Bravo release them of their NDAs so that they can speak openly about alleged mistreatment while on set.[5]

In a legal letter sent to the networks,[6] the reality TV stars’ lawyers accused the companies of violating California Government Code section 12964.5(2)(A), which prohibits employers from forcing employees “to sign a nondisparagement agreement or other [document] to the extent it has the purpose or effect of denying the employee the right to disclose information about unlawful acts in the workplace.”[7] The letter alleges that the studios subjected their stars to “grotesque and depraved mistreatment”[8] and cited concerns of child labor, racism, sexism, and revenge porn.[9] As a final call to action, the lawyers promptly demand that NBCUniversal release employees from any NDAs “that interfere with their ability to freely disclose unlawful conduct in the workplace.[10] 

Bravo swiftly shot back, avowing that NDAs are not intended to prevent disclosure of unlawful acts in the workplace.[11] The network clarified that “any current or former cast or crew is free to discuss and disclose any allegedly unlawful acts in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination, or any other conduct they have reason to believe is inappropriate.”[12]  Moreover, Bravo underscored their proactive approach, ensuring that they are working with their “third party production companies to remind all cast and crew that they are encouraged to report any such concerns through the channels made available by the production company so concerns can be promptly addressed.”[13]

According to Bravo’s release statement, “[confidentiality clauses] are not intended to prevent disclosure by cast and crew of unlawful acts in the workplace, and they have not been enforced in that manner.”[14] In response, Frankel argued on her podcast that confidentiality clauses are not about storylines “because you see storylines discussed everywhere on social media long before they air. . . it’s a way for them to try to protect their reputation and make it like there are no illegal practices and violations behind the scenes.”[15] According to Frankel, she has been threatened with lawsuits for talking about production matters but not matters related to the actual filmed content.[16]  

Other reality TV stars have similarly expressed Frankel’s frustration. In an interview on the podcast Poplitically Incorrect, Below Deck reality TV star Izzy Wouters provided some insight on why cast members were asked to sign NDAs.[17] During the interview, Wouters shared that the NDAs functioned to protect guests who demanded privacy on the boat, not the actual plot of the story.[18] While filming, she witnessed infidelity, human trafficking and drugs on the yachts, all of which was “quite disconcerting and uncomfortable [for] a young woman.”[19]

Regardless of their true purpose, NDAs have protected employers from legal consequences by ensuring that their employees stay quiet about criminal activity.[20] It is still unclear whether NBCU will release stars from the NDAs. However, in 2019, the same network allowed employees to break NDAs if they believed they experienced sexual harassment.[21]

Along with Frankel’s demand to speak freely about workplace conduct, she is also an advocate for the unionization of reality TV.[22] Frankel is pushing for the implementation of residual payments, asserting that “reality stars should [earn] residual-like payments when their series [are] replayed by networks and streamers across multiple platforms.”[23] In Frankel’s view, the victims of this scheme are the individuals who are so focused on their desire for fame that they overlook the potential future earnings they could receive, while the networks will continue to profit from their talents.[24]

Amidst the SAG-AFTRA strike, the union has issued a letter in support of Frankel and her attorneys’ fight for residual payments and better working conditions.[25] With the pending WGA resolution, it remains to be seen how the entertainment industry will respond to SAG-AFTRA and the concerns of the reality TV show participants.


[1] Sapna Goundan, Non-Disclosure Agreements in the Entertainment Industry (May 23, 2022), Sprintlaw, https://sprintlaw.com.au/articles/nda-entertainment-industry/#:~:text=Non%2DDisclosure%20Agreements%20(NDAs),are%20released%20to%20the%20public.

[2] Joe R. Thompson, Overview of Confidentiality Agreements, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (Apr. 2013), https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/wholefarm/html/c5-80.html.

[3] Goundan, supra note 1.

[4] The identities of the current and formed cast and crew members joining Frankel remain disclosed, but some reports indicate that around 80 people may have joined Frankel, see Sara Nathan, Bethenny Frankel Calls for Reality Stars Union: ‘Networks and Streamers Have Been Exploiting People for Too Long’, Page Six (Aug. 30, 2023), https://pagesix.com/2023/08/30/bethenny-frankels-lawyer-claims-more-stars-joining-lawsuit/.

[5] Ashley CullinsReality TV Stars and Crew Want Out of “Draconian” NBCUniversal NDAs, The Hollywood Reporter (Aug. 21, 2023), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/reality-tv-stars-ndas-nbcuniversal-1235571196/.

[6] Letter from Bryan J. Freedman, Att’y, to Kimberley D. Harris, Att’y (Aug. 20, 2023), https://deadline.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/NBCU-NDA-LETTER-AUG-20-1_Redacted.pdf.

[7] CA Govt Code § 12964.5 (2018).

[8] Cullins, supra note 4.

[9] Freedman, supra note 6.

[10] Id.

[11] Charisma MadarangBravo Says NDAs Don’t Stop Reality TV Stars From Reporting ‘Unlawful Acts in the Workplace’, Rolling Stone (Aug. 26, 2023), https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-news/bravo-bethenny-frankel-nbc-ndas-reality-tv-stars-1234812837/.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Carly Thomas, Bravo Says Reality TV Stars Can Break NDAs to Disclose “Unlawful Acts in the Workplace”, The Hollywood Reporter, (Aug. 25, 2023), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/bravo-reality-stars-break-ndas-disclose-unlawful-acts-1235575312/.

[15] Just B with Bethenny Frankel, Just B Rant: Sorry Not Sorry!, iHeart Podcasts, at 02:28 (Aug. 28, 2023), https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/just-b-rant-sorry-not-sorry/id1531000011?i=1000626036384

[16] Id. at 02:11.

[17] Camille Moore, Below Deck Star Reveals Shocking Reasons For Signing an NDA, Tvovermind, (Jan. 18, 2021), https://tvovermind.com/below-deck-star-reveals-shocking-reasons-for-signing-an-nda/.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Rebecca Greenfield, How Lawyers Protect the Harvey Weinstein in Your Workplace, Bloomberg (Oct. 18, 2017), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-18/how-lawyers-protect-the-harvey-weinstein-in-your-workplace.

[21] Daniel Arkin, NBCUniversal releases former staffers confidentiality agreements about sexual harassment, NBCNews(Oct. 25, 2019), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/all/nbcuniversal-releases-former-staffers-confidentiality-agreements-about-sexual-harassment-n1072411.

[22] Marc Malkin, Bethenny Frankel Calls for Reality Stars Union: ‘Networks and Streamers Have Been Exploiting People for Too Long’ (EXCLUSIVE), Variety (Jul. 20, 2023), https://variety.com/2023/tv/news/bethenny-frankel-reality-union-strike-1235674531/.

[23]  Id.

[24] Id.

[25] SAG-AFTRA Statement on the Representation and Protection of Reality Performers, SAG-AFTRA (Aug. 9, 2023), https://www.sagaftra.org/sag-aftra-statement-representation-and-protection-reality-performers