To protect shows, Disney, Cartoon, Nick patrol kids' Web pages
LOS ANGELES, California - Young actors in Hollywood have a new hurdle to overcome in their budding careers: Roving studio executives who patrol Twitter, Facebook Inc and other social media sites with the threat of legal action if the young thespians disclose too much.
Talent managers and casting agents say Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network often monitor posts by cast members on these sites for messages that might harm their shows' prospects with fickle youthful viewers.
The networks order them to take down posts that might reveal too much about characters, plot twists, casting or comments that might offend advertisers.
Social media dogs young actors seeking stage careers as well.
Carol Lynn Sher, an agent for kids seeking parts in Hollywood and on Broadway, said one of her clients lost a job after he posted that he was in the cast of a Broadway show before it was officially announced.
"They pulled the offer. It was devastating," she said. "I sent out a precautionary note to all my clients because of studios' and ad agencies' concerns about social media."
Efforts to rein in the online habits of kids are part of a larger Hollywood campaign to restrict adults, too. And it could become an issue in February contract talks for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), covering over 150,000 actors, said a lawyer for ad agencies that work with the channels.
"We try to watch their tweets. If we see things that concern us, we raise it with them," acknowledged Sharon Lieblein, vice-president, talent and casting for Time Warner Inc's Cartoon Network. She says she frequently asks kids to delete posts from Facebook or Twitter.
The network asked one of its young stars to take down a tweet disparaging drink retailer Jamba Juice as "disgusting," she added. "I thought it could be a major sponsor."
Disney Channel denies it is heavy-handed and instead insists it works proactively by offering social media training.
"Kids are our business. We know that their first instinct is to go on social media," said Judy Taylor, the Disney Channel's senior vice-president, casting and talent relations.
This summer, Disney instructed the channel's "Good Luck Charlie" cast members not to spill the beans online about the show's plan to introduce a new baby boy to the program's family, the Duncans.
Taylor said Disney often reminds kids to "think before you tweet," which she says helps prevent misfires.
"These things happened in the past and that's why it has happened now less and less," she said.
Viacom Inc's Nickelodeon said its policies have evolved as the use of social media increased.
"We expect our talent to exercise discretion in all aspects of their lives," said Nickelodeon spokesman George Cabico.
The mothers of wannabe stars and their agents were loathe to discuss online restrictions for fear of hurting budding careers.
One mom said the secrecy around Paramount's upcoming "Paranormal Activity 4" was so intense she didn't know the part for which her daughter was auditioning. The mother said she had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before her 11-year old could try out.
Paramount, a unit of Viacom, declined comment.
"Sometimes we have 2,000 actors sign NDAs before even seeing a script," said casting director Francene Selkirk, who added that the threat of retaliation for a wayward tweet is always there.
"Do it and it could be the end of a casting director seeing you again, or an agent representing you in the future," agrees David O'Connor of O'Connor Casting in Chicago, which specializes in casting for TV, film and commercials.
An NDA obtained by Reuters spells out the consequences, "including without limitation, the right to seek civil and criminal penalties" if a person receiving a screenplay discloses elements of the screenplay "to any member of the press, on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, MySpace or any other social network."
A company can legally pursue a child for rescinding the terms of an NDA or the child's parents if they agreed to be responsible should the child rescind, said Doug Wood of Reed Smith. But he noted it rarely happens and damages are hard to quantify.
Content companies and SAG-AFTRA are talking informally about the issue, said Wood, who negotiates for advertisers on the collective bargaining agreements. The guild believes NDAs cannot be required for casting calls and auditions.
"We're particularly concerned with supporting and defending our members' First Amendment rights, including in the social media world," said Pamela Greenwalt of SAG-AFTRA. "We generally believe minors are entitled to even greater protections."
But O'Connor is skeptical.
"Think Big Brother isn't watching?" he said. "Think again."