Death of ‘Cops’ crew member resurfaces questions about reality show safety


“Cops” executive producers John Langley, left, and Morgan Langley answer questions with Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer during a news conference in Omaha, Neb., on Wednesday. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Bryce Dion, an experienced audio technician for the “Cops” reality show, died this week after being accidentally shot by police during a shootout with a robbery suspect.

Bryce Dion (Courtesy of Langley Productions) Bryce Dion (Courtesy of Langley Productions)

Dion’s death was a first for the long-running show, in which camera crews embed with police to document raids, car chases, arrests and other police actions.

But it’s hardly the first time a reality show crew member has been seriously injured or killed while on the job. For many, Dion’s death resurfaces long-running questions about crew safety on these programs.

Despite their market saturation, reality shows still tend to generate decent ratings, and they’re cheaper to produce than scripted shows. That’s good for production companies and networks. Less clear is whether the shows do enough to protect their production crews in dangerous situations, especially as the sub-genre of the “extreme” reality show expands.

“Cops” did much to create that genre, which now includes a cornucopia of programming. There are shows about dangerous jobs (“Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers”), shows about adventure seekers (“Survivorman”), and shows about remote regions of the Earth (“Alaskan Bush People,” “Siberian Cut”). For many viewers, it’s great television.

But what makes it so engaging to watch also makes it dangerous to make.

A Los Angeles Times deep dive into the safety records of reality show productions found only a handful of crew injuries reported to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. There were, the Times reported in January 2013, “fewer than a dozen citations and accidents involving reality TV sets in the last five years, including a fatality,” which occurred during a smoke-bomb accident in Colorado during the 2012 filming of Discovery Channel’s “Brothers in Arms.”

“But,” the Times continued, “union officials, safety consultants and producers say those numbers don’t begin to reveal the true extent of the problem.”

They explain:

“Many incidents go unreported because crew members sign non-disclosure agreements and fear being blacklisted if they file lawsuits. Record-keeping is further muddled by the fact that many of the shows are nonunion, and workers are often classified as independent contractors. OSHA typically tracks only serious accidents involving employees and has no jurisdiction if the incident occurs in a foreign country such as Guyana.”

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees didn’t have a contract to represent “Cops” crew members, the Times reported this week.


An image of the police shootout in which “Cops” crew member Bryce Dion was killed. (Courtesy of the Omaha Police Department)

Here are a few recent examples of reality show injuries and deaths on set:

  • In February 2013, a photographer working on a Discovery Channel show called “Dangerous Flights” died in a plane crash while filming aerial footage in Kenya. The pilot of the plane also died. John Driftmier, 30, was an experienced reality show cameraman; he’d previously worked on Discovery’s “Highway Thru Hell” and “License to Drill.” Driftmier’s father-in-law told the Calgary Sun that the crash came after Driftmier hired a sightseeing plane to get additional shots of the route featured in the series.
  • That same month, cast member Michael Donatelli, cameraman Darren Rydstrom and pilot David Gibbi were killed in a helicopter crash for an unnamed Discovery Channel show. The military-themed show was shooting at a ranch in Los Angeles County. Donatelli’s family sued the Discovery Channel last summer, accusing the network of cutting corners with safety measures to save money, Deadline reported.
  • Lars Andrews, a reality show consultant, told the Times about an incident in 2010 involving a crew member working on an unidentified program. A snake bit him during the last shot of the day in the Venezuelan jungle, and he went into shock despite treatment from a paramedic, who had an antivenom on hand, Andrews said. The crew couldn’t evacuate him for further treatment because of the time of day, and he died.
  • Executive producer Monica Martino was seriously injured while filming the History Channel series “Bamazon.” The show follows construction crews mining for gold in Guyana. Martino told the Times that she was thrown from a boat when its captain — blind in one eye — lost control on a sharp turn. She was knocked out, but it gets worse: As the crew brought Martino back to the base camp, the boat hit a tree, leaving her with a bruised rib, torn shoulder and a concussion. Martino said the production company had no emergency evacuation plan for crew members, so she waited nearly 20 hours to receive medical care.
  • Terri Flanell died in 2012 during filming for the Discovery Channel’s “Brothers in Arms” pilot. Flanell and her husband, Mel Bernstein, owned a gun range in Colorado and were filming a scene involving smoke bombs. Somehow, the crew lost control of the devices and they flew like rockets into Flanell’s body. Bernstein later sued Discovery for wrongful death and for “negligence in using, or authorizing the use of, pyrotechnic devices.”

Following Dion’s death in Omaha, Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, told the Times: “It’s another tragedy in our business. Safety is our first and foremost priority, especially if you’re working around live ammunition.”

[This post has been updated.]

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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Mark Berman · August 28, 2014