Forget the Jersey Shore. The real tabloid trouble for Viacom Inc. (VIA) is brewing on the hit kid's cartoon, Dora the Explorer.
According to a lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, the New York-based media giant took advantage of 14-year-old Caitlin Sanchez (pictured, below) and her parents were pressured into signing what her lawyer calls "an unconscionable contract with convoluted, vague, and undefined terms that allowed producers of the Nickelodeon hit to exploit her." Attorney John Balestriere, who is representing Sanchez, said in a statement the actress was cheated out of millions in promised compensation for merchandising, residuals promotional work and recordings.
Viacom, parent of the Nickelodeon cable channel, denies doing any such thing, telling the New York Daily News that the case is without merit. The channel also told the newspaper that Sanchez lost her part of the heroine to a generation of preschoolers because she was too old, as did the actress who originated the part. Calls to Viacom were not immediately returned.
Dora, the lovable Spanish-speaking tyke, is big business to Viacom. Balestriere calls it an $11 billion brand. The show celebrated its 10th anniversary this year which included celebrations in 30 cities with a new Dora movie Dora's Big Birthday Adventure. Her engaging smile can be found on everything from school supplies to apparel to home decor. The program also remains one of the most watched by preschoolers on television, which may explain why Balestriere feels his client deserved more.
"Through the contract and repeated promises, which Nickelodeon did not keep, defendants Nickelodeon and Nickelodeon Consumer Products, along with Caitlin's talent agency Cunningham-Escott-Slevin-Doherty Talent Agency, Inc. (CESD) and Caitlin's agent at CESD, Jason Bercy, took advantage of the young girl and her family, and in so doing, received enormous value from Caitlin without paying her promised compensation for the reasonable value of her services," the lawyer says in a press release.
Bercy, who allegedly gave Sanchez and her family 22 minutes to review the youngster's contract or face losing the part, had no comment for the Daily News about the allegations. Neither he nor CESD are parties to the lawsuit.
One issue, according to the Daily News, is that Sanchez claims she worked more than 100 Dora the Explorer events for free and only received a $40 per diem fee. Nickelodeon snapped back in true tabloid style. "A Nickelodeon source countered that she and her parents were treated to first-class hotels on the road, had their air and ground transportation paid for by the cable network and that the $40 was for incidental expenses," the newspaper says.
As the suit plays out in the media, expect Viacom to mount a vigorous legal defense to protect one of its most lucrative franchises. Dora viewers, however, will probably not notice a thing. One of the perks of the preschool business is that when the audience grows up and gets tired of a character, a new group takes their place.