By Olivia Floyd, Associate Editor
ABC newscasters Amy Robach and TJ Holmes will not be returning to their anchor chairs. ABC took the pair off the air in December of 2022 after The Daily Mail published a story chronicling their romantic relationship. Up until the story broke, neither the public nor the ABC network officials were aware that the two hosts of GMA3, a midday news program broadcast by ABC, were involved in such a relationship. ABC’s decision to cut ties with Robach and Holmes comes after the president of the network reported that the pair’s relationship did not violate company policy. Even so, on January 27, 2023, the company released a statement which “recogniz[ed] their talent and commitment over the years,” but ultimately concluded that it was “best for everyone that [the couple] move on from ABC News.” While this decision presents itself as somewhat tabloid fodder, the anchors’ exit from ABC, a Disney subsidiary, brings up several legal concepts, such as non-disclosure agreements, protected class employees (since Robach is a woman and Holmes is Black), and employment at will. However, the most important legal issue at the center of Robach and Holmes’ relationship is the morals clause.
A morals clause is a contractual provision that essentially allows a party to terminate an agreement, such as an employment contract, if the other party engages in any sort of scandalous or offensive behavior. Companies often use this clause to fire employees who have acted in a way that puts the company in a negative light. If that seems like a broad-ranging power, it’s because it is. These clauses use especially vague language such as “public disrepute, humiliation, contempt, scandal or ridicule” which in effect, gives the company carte blanche to terminate a contract if the other party does anything to make them look bad. Peter Nelson, a film and television lawyer, commented that the first draft of many entertainment contracts features a morals clause that is “completely subjective and leaves to the studio any interpretation they choose.” The responsibility then falls upon attorneys to negotiate the deal in a way that provides their client some protection.
In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, morals clauses became very prevalent. These clauses allowed major companies such as Netflix and NBC to cut ties with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer. In the entertainment industry, the morals clause first became widespread practice during the Red Scare. According to entertainment attorney Linda Lichter, “Companies [began to] put them in contracts so they could fire people if they were accused of being a [communist].” In the post #MeToo era, entertainment companies reinforced the language in morals clauses. Long gone are the days of companies needing proof that scandalous or disreputable conduct actually occurred. Rather these days, morals clauses often use language that allows termination so long as the conduct is alleged to have happened or believed to have happened.
Entertainment attorneys note that the Walt Disney Corporation notoriously draws a hard line when it comes to morals clauses. This is not surprising, given that historically Disney takes extra precaution to avoid any sort of scandal. CNN reporter Oliver Darcy wrote that Disney’s brand is “family-friendly, fun-for-everyone, [and] intentionally inoffensive.” Put another way, Disney prides itself on steering clear of impropriety. To its credit, an inoffensive brand is one which, in theory, should be more profitable than brands who take a stand on political or social issues. By not taking a stance on political and societal issues, inoffensive brands do not risk deterring potential customers who do not share the same political or societal views. Perhaps that is why Disney has long been one of the most profitable corporations in the world. As one of the most successful producers of family friendly entertainment content, it makes sense for Disney to vigorously protect their ability to terminate talent whose conduct compromises the brand’s mission to remain inoffensive.
Recently, 20th Television and ABC Signature, which are both Disney subsidiaries, bolstered their morals clauses in ways that gave Disney a vast amount of discretion when choosing to terminate an employee. The amended morals clauses allow the company to terminate for any act or omission that could cause Disney to incur public disrepute or may cause offense to the “community or any substantial group thereof.” This presents a massive problem for individuals who are politically active. Any sort of liberal-leaning public act could “offend” someone with conservative political views, and vice versa. As Republicans and Democrats are both “substantial groups” in America, per the terms of their contract, Disney could use any political activism as grounds for termination. Beyond politics, morals clauses present major issues for individuals whose personal lives stray from the narrow path of traditional family values.
This brings us back to Amy Robach and TJ Holmes, the terminated hosts of GMA3, a news program produced by ABC News, a Disney subsidiary. In December, ABC suspended Robach and Holmes after an article detailing the pair’s private romantic relationship was published. An off-screen relationship between two co-anchors of a news program might, on its own, make headlines. But what takes this relationship from headline news to what some–including Disney–would call a scandal, is the fact that both Robach and Holmes are married. Robach is married to Andrew Schue, a TV actor known for his role in Melrose Place. Holmes’ wife is Marilee Fiebig, a successful immigration attorney. Both Robach and Holmes publicly commented they are separated from their spouses and planning on finalizing a divorce. Even so, nearly every pop-culture news organization, gossip column, and tabloid ran stories chronicling the relationship which Gawker dubbed a “torrid love affair.” The specific reasons for termination are likely to remain unknown due to non-disclosure agreements. However, given its history with morals clauses, it is safe to assume that Disney found the Robach-Holmes relationship to be too offensive. It is not every day that the people who report the news are also the subject of it. Unfortunately, for Robach and Holmes, their time in the limelight cost them their seats at the GMA3 desk.
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