February 6, 2006

Key West Judge Refuses To Stop “The Real World”

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Scott D. Ponce

Even the combination of cantankerous neighbors and Hurricanes Rita and Wilma could not stop a producer from shooting a popular documentary series in Key West.

After three days of hearings – held over a two-month period due to the hurricanes – a Florida trial court judge refused to stop the filming of the popular documentary series “The Real World,” which is produced by Bunim/Murray Productions and broadcast on MTV.

Currently in its seventeenth season, “The Real World” pioneered reality television and is widely considered to be the most popular program in the history of the genre. In the show, seven people who have never previously met are brought together to live in a single house, while cameras continuously film their transition from strangers to roommates. After filming the first sixteen seasons in large cities throughout the United States and Europe, Bunim/Murray leased a waterfront Key West mansion for its newest installment.

Almost as filming began, two prominent Key West citizens, who live next door to the house, filed suit asking state court Judge Mark Jones to order a halt to the filming. They contended that filming a high-profile television show – especially a program broadcast on MTV involving seven young adults living together in a single house – would ruin the family and residential character of their neighborhood. They cited provisions of the county code prohibiting businesses in a residential area, and they claimed the house was lit too brightly at night, and news of the filming had caused people to flock to the neighborhood by boat and car.

Judge Jones denied the plaintiffs’ request to enjoin filming and permitted Bunim/Murray to continue filming throughout the duration of its lease. He said that it did not appear to him that the filming violated the county code, but that he did not need to reach the issue of whether the activity constituted the conduct of a business. Instead, he ruled that while the neighbors had the right to use their own property without interference, under “private nuisance” doctrine, Bunim/Murray had the same exact right, which included filming the people who were living in Bunim/Murray’s house. The judge also took note of Bunim/Murray’s extraordinary efforts in advance of the filming and the litigation. The company had:

• met with city and county officials to let the local governments know of its plans, and to learn what permits, licenses and logistics needed to be secured and considered

• convened neighborhood meetings to explain its activities and to resolve any concerns, and

• assured neighbors that if they ever had any problems with anything at the property, they should immediately bring those concerns to Bunim/Murray’s attention.

The judge’s decision emphasized the fact that Bunim/Murray had done all that it could to be a good neighbor and at all times was responsive to the concerns of the neighborhood.

Although the judge did not specifically rely on this ground, Bunim/Murray emphasized in its argument that the company would spend more than $1.6 million dollars in Key West while filming “The Real World,” a figure that did not take into account the value of the publicity that the documentary would generate for the area. The company also introduced evidence to show that if filming were halted, not only would Bunim/Murray have to leave Key West, but the company would lose more than $5 million in stopping the production.

An irony of the litigation: the plaintiffs own the famous Conch Train in Key West. Many residents have complained of the noise and distraction of the tourist-laden train traveling through their neighborhoods, ringing bells, and providing nonstop commentary over a public address system. The litigation touched off a sustained fury of letters to the editors in Key West’s newspapers.

“The Real World: Key West” premieres on MTV on February 28, 2006.

Holland & Knight represented Bunim/Murray Production in this litigation.

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