Kiwi reality show to pay hurt player

Verdict is sobering for TV prod'n biz

AUCKLAND — Reality TV company Touchdown Prods. has been penalized NZ$65,000 ($40,000) after a stunt went wrong, badly burning a contestant.

The accident occurred in July on the set of “Going Straight,” a “Fear Factor”-like show, when producers asked contestant Mahesh Muralidhar to re-enact a stunt so it could be filmed from a helicopter to get a better shot.

Contestants had to run along a beach while explosions went off around them — they were eliminated if they stepped off course. An explosive detonated under Muralidhar, 24, who received serious burns to his upper body.

Show host Manu Bennett jumped on Muralidhar and smothered the flames.

The penalty, the first under beefed-up occupational safety legislation, was handed down by a district court Tuesday. More than half is to be paid as reparation to Muralidhar.

After the hearing, Touchdown founder Julie Christie said she was devastated by what happened. “I want to make it clear we don’t embark on these shows without safety precautions. That’s normal behavior.”

New Zealand’s no-fault accident compensation scheme prevents lawsuits for personal injury, but the company was prosecuted by Occupational Safety and Health, the government department responsible for enforcing employment safety.

Verdict will be sobering for the TV production biz in a country where reality fare is increasingly popular.

“There is a tendency for reality TV programs to look for more extreme activities,” OSH national operations manager Mike Cosman said, “such as extreme physical environments and ‘Survivor’-type programs.

“As they become more extreme, the requirement on the production company to manage health and safety risks better becomes more important.”

The company last week had to airlift popular television personality Lana Coc-Kroft out of Fiji when she was struck down by a viral illness while filming “Celebrity Treasure Island.”

Touchdown, the country’s leading producer of reality television, developed the format that aired on ABC Stateside as “The Chair,” in which contestants were hooked up to a heart monitor as they answered multiple-choice questions while exposed to distracting and stressful situations.

Company later sued Fox TV claiming its show “The Chamber” was based on Touchdown’s pitch. Fox cancelled “Chamber” after three episodes.