I just finished watching the TV show Fargo. Each episode begins with the lines that this is based on real events. When I looked for it on Wikipedia, it said

However, this claim is completely fictional. Showrunner Noah Hawley continued use of the Coens' device, saying it allowed him to tell “a story in a new way”.

I want to ask, is there no rule/guideline for it? In other words there must be some governing body which checks what contents can be shown and what can not be shown. So is there no rule related to this?

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    This question is not specific to fargo. wikipedia already says that the claim is fictional. this is a question about the general rule. fargo is just used as an example.
    – Ankit
    Jul 15, 2014 at 5:30
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    If your question is if there is a rule or law against this, no, there is no rule or law preventing it, otherwise it wouldn't be done. Many other movies have claimed to be true including 1985's Return of the Living Dead. Jul 15, 2014 at 5:48
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    possible duplicate of Why is "Based on a True Story" used? Jul 15, 2014 at 17:19
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    @cde exactly my point. Fargo is fiction. They can make stuff up...including pretending that the story is based on a real event.
    – DA.
    Mar 24, 2016 at 6:55

2 Answers 2


I found this...

Question: 1) In a publication, what is the difference between saying “based on a true story” versus “inspired by a true story” and are there legal implications that could arise from either choice of words? (For our purposes, the “true story” language is going to be used in a Children’s Picture book about an animal. The book is about a real animal, containing some facts about the animal’s life, but the animal is anthropomorphized).

Answer: 1) No difference of any legal consequence between “based on” and “inspired by.” Each of them suggests that there is a core of truth to the story but that you are embellishing or going beyond the factual record. This is something we call “faction,” a conflation of fact and fiction and it can under some circumstances give rise to libel claims, but not if the story is about animals.

That was written by Steve Gillen, an Intellectual Property attorney, and comes from ibpa.com. So it appears that from a legal standpoint it isn't about fleshing out what fragments of truth would be in the story, but rather covering whatever might be potentially recognized as a true detail. By saying that the story is "based on" a true story, the actual true story part could simply be that something happened in Fargo, North Dakota. I realize that in this specific case he admits that the individual episodes aren't based on facts... that he is using the technique to sell his story. But the series is based on the movie, which was "based on" a true story.... so the thread could be continued just on that.

This isn't the first time a series has started like that, where the individual episodes indicated a story based on real life, but might actually be almost completely fabrication. Dragnet radio and TV episodes were mostly based on actual cases from the LAPD, but there was artistic license taken occasionally with how a case might have ended or even begun. When the Tom Hanks movie of the same name came out, it began just as the series had... claiming the story was true, but that the names had been changed to protect the innocent. Yet the story was a complete fabrication.

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    The movie Dragnet was more of a parody of the TV series, and it would have been incomplete if they had not used the original opening. The fact that the plot is a complete fabrication is just another element of the parody. Jul 15, 2014 at 12:46
  • Regardless, a less ... knowledgeable ... or more ... naive ... viewer might have been duped by the opening of that movie. One who was unfamiliar with the source show. Which is, I believe, kind of the OP's point.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 15, 2014 at 14:56
  • It isn't about whether or not we should believe the opening disclaimer... it is about how the opening disclaimer sets the tone. With the movie Dragnet, I agree that it wasn't about being serious... it was about continuity with the series. However... it is still an example of that kind of disclaimer being used for some OTHER reason than to actually inform the viewer that what they are about to see was based in fact. The OP was curious as to whether or not it was legal to use a disclaimer like that when it was clearly not based on a true story.
    – Bon Gart
    Jul 15, 2014 at 20:11

I believe that these statements, used as potential advertising in order to sell a product (the show), are in violation of FTC regulation as per: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising

I don't have time to fully research precedents and technical guidelines to when and when this does not apply, as apparently it's not being applied here, but one cannot deny that belief that a story is based on something that really happened is more alluring and thus has the effect if not intended effect of being a type of advertised statement. This is a deception. Disclaimers that come at the end of a show where they know no one tends to watch, are simply not good enough.

False advertising plain and simple. Some viewers might rightly claim that they were defrauded buying say the DVD of a season of Fargo on the advertised claim that the events happen exactly as they occurred.

I honestly don't see how anyone can see it any other way. It might hamper what some people think are artistic touches or tone generation in a work of fiction, but these are cheap tricks at best so I don't think much is lost by disallowing it or requiring a clearly visible disclaimer or asterisk next to false claims (narration claims differing from that of words spoken by fictional characters).

  • IF we took that rule seriously there would never be any advertising. Worse, trying to apply it to fiction (movie, books or stories we tell our children) it would destroy the industry and all of human literature. Most people (and most courts for that matter) are quite clear on the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Inside fiction claims have no relation to the real world and no credibility. Nor do we have to regulate them by law.
    – matt_black
    Mar 23, 2016 at 18:58
  • Seriously is relative or a matter of degrees. I think in this case it's really a blatant violation of the spirit of the regulation, and wouldn't require much seriousness in taking of the rule. Questions like these and hundreds of google results about the series Fargo alone, would not exist unless people generally feel like messages at the beginning which make claims aren't outside the fiction. Mar 23, 2016 at 19:53
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    Movies and TV are legally distinct from Advertising. They are art, not commercial speech. Truth in Advertising wouldn't cover this, ever. Any judge would laugh them out on First Amendment grounds immediately.
    – cde
    Mar 24, 2016 at 7:20

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