A Rich Treasury of Reality TV Worker Stories

Over the past few weeks, we've brought you several installments of true stories from the overworked, underpaid, and ill-treated employees who work at all levels in reality TV. We now offer you an absolute slew of new emails about the dark side of the "nonfiction" TV industry.

In earlier installments, producers, directors, camera people, and others detailed the various ways that they are mistreated, mostly due to the lack of union protection that pervades the industry. In order to try to air as many voices as possible, we offer you the following treasure trove of reality worker emails we've received this month.

No longer a good fit

I had worked on multiple shows over 4 years for a very well known reality tv production company in NYC, and had a great relationship with them.

But then I was hired as lead editor on a show for OWN, with a solid air date.

There was no prep by anyone when i started, and they expected me to do all the writing and figure out the story, sorting through days of footage.

6 weeks went by, I was doing all the work. They brought up working Saturdays to get it done. I said I'd agree, but would like a "producer/editor" credit.

The answer was no, and I was told that I was under contract for 60 hour weeks (no OT).

Even though I had never signed any deal memo, and never heard such a thing when I was booked, they insisted.

The icing on the cake was a week later when my grandmother died. I needed to take off a long weekend for her funeral.

Their response? To fire me as I left for the airport. The reason "it was no longer a good fit."

Raises and other myths

I have over a decade of experience in reality/non fiction/"unscripted" programming. Primarily in casting – here are a handful of stories for you:

- I have worked numerous seasons on a hit network series, never offered a raise, and always get told, oh the network has cut their budgets. When they hire you, it's anywhere from 7-9 weeks, and you don't know when you're going to be wrapped until a day before, hours before, at best. I have often worked myself out of a job by often delivering what is needed sooner than the deadline. No thank you, just another week of work lost. Oh, you have ZERO choice, either sign the agreement or no work. So what do we do? Say we don't agree with the contract and then go without work? We are good at what we do, and yes we chose this, but also are allowed to have a normal life too, right? Or must you choose work vs life?

- Oddly, each season the production is able to take money saved to fund new sizzle reels, etc for shows to pitch. Fine by me, that's smart business, but still no regard for welfare of employees. Typically you work somewhere you get a raise for longetivity and consistency, or is that a myth?

- Schedule – 7 days a week, casting calls on weekends, also this job requires travel, and hours can range from minimum of 9 to 12-14 on a given. You're given a per diem, which allows you to get some fast food. Flights are booked on orbitz/expedia type sites and we are typically relegated to middle seats and back of the plane.

- Family – if you have one, you are shunned

- Healthcare – non existant

- Sick days – what are those?

- I am in my 40's (have been told I am not getting hired despite a flawless track record – b/c of my age) – age discrimination? Hmmm, yep

From a reality TV producer

In case you don't know, there is a Producers Guild, of which I am a member. I only joined last year...thinking there would be some benefits. However, the biggest benefit seems to be mixers and free screenings. Even their job boards don't have jobs for producers - it always seem to be for editors and post people. It's kind of a joke.

I didn't write you to bitch about the PGA though - just to say how ineffective all things/entities seem to be when it comes to producers. We have no one fighting for us. Camera, sound, everyone else has to stop working after a certain number of hours or "turnaround" goes into effect. Not producers. We work until we drop.

We have NO PROTECTIONS as you have been reporting. Frankly, I have no idea how we don't violate OSHA standards, US labor practices, and various and sundry other "protections" that are out there. We are the dirty secret swept under a rug, yet our work comes into your living room every night...

I would never compare what I do to an indentured servant or migrant worker - but the sheer numbers of hours we work "off the clock" and lack of meal breaks and safety "standards" and such definitely violate the most basic US labor practices.

I hope someday it changes. I love what I do, I just hate the way it gets done.

The view from post-production

First off, I want to applaud you for your coverage of the conditions of reality television from the perspective of producers, but I also want to bring up both the plight and progress of post production crews in reality. I've been working in post production for the past seven years and I got my start in reality television. My earliest gigs were night jobs that sometimes worked me so hard that I fell asleep at the wheel and ended up on freeways that I didn't know how I got there. At one point, I dozed off while driving home on the 10 freeway and came to heading south on the 710 near Monterey Park. That's not a joke.

In post, we are the end of the chain. The job delivers with us, which means any footage not shot, any shoot that is compromised due to bad audio, any tape that gets chewed up by the camera or hard drive that goes corrupt becomes our problem, and the deadline stares us down. We hear the dreaded words, "Time to get creative!" Which really is someone saying, "The assets required to accomplish the task are not available. Time to conjure something." Of course, we have our editor's tricks, but a bag of tricks is simply not content. We can chop together a myriad of lines to form new sentences and drop a bunch of terrible, sparkly transitions on shots. The average show can shoot in the average of 300 hours per 1 hour episode, which is a staggering amount of footage to go through. I'm not diminishing the pressure of the field crews, because they are under incredible timelines as well due to location and shooting schedules. That said, amazing progress has also been made in the past years.

One of our most recent victories, "Last Comic Standing" just signed a union contract to get our post crew compensated fairly. Other recent union contracts won include "Naked and Afraid", "Swamp People", and "Fashion Star". I've walked those picket lines personally, and seen some amazing courage displayed by post crews to better our conditions.

One unique situation that happens in post production is sub-contracting post production. One of the highest profile television shows that does this is American Idol. The show is shot on a large stage on a studio lot that has a union contract. The production crew works under a union contract and earns a pension and health benefits. The production company then sub-contracts out the post production to a separate non-union post house because it's cheaper. While, cheaper it may be, it reduces the amount of union work for union workers. Some non-union post houses do provide healthcare, but by and large these facilities are rare and for the vast majority of workers who are freelancers, the union provides the most effective portable healthcare and pension plan which is why it is generally preferred. I wanted to offer some perspective from post production to see the whole of reality TV represented.

Viacom in action

Around 2008 I was a permalancer at Vh1. After they stripped away our benefits and group of us organized a work stoppage. This was at the same time the writer's guild was on strike. Hundreds of us got up from our desks and picketed outside of 1515 broadway. I was approached by a union rep, and he told me exactly what was going to happen next. He said that Viacom was going to cave to our demands a reinstate our benefits, but 6 months later take away our benefits again, knowing that we would no longer have the momentum or motivation to strike for second time. This is exactly what happened.

Once I stopped getting an hourly rate and was moved to a weekly, MTV paid me in what had to be an illegal fashion. It's a bit hard to explain, but they took my weekly pay and figured out an hourly rate that, when given 20 hours of OT a week automatically, would add up to my weekly. This rate was well below national minimum wage. So, even if I did work OT I was not really getting paid for it. I would work an average of 90 hours a week, but never really earn OT.

When I moved to LA things only got worse. We would work 18 hour days 6 days a week with no turn around time, meal penalties or any of the other considerations every other member of the crew was afforded by their union.

If nothing else, I would like to thank you for writing about us. Not that we are some destitute group...in the end I like what I do, but we are not being treated in accordance with American Labor Laws and it is nice to have a voice.

Rich in hypocrisy

I work in non-fiction, but my career has been all documentaries and docu-series - you know, the shit that is supposed to win Emmys and Oscars, go to TriBeCa (and some projects I've worked on have been nominated for Oscars and won Emmys). The distinction is important to make if only that it highlights that this is not just reality tv's problem, but a huge industry wide problem, even among the most progressive and liberal minds in the business.

I find the hypocrisy RICH - production companies and directors that want to make art, who fancy themselves as modern and forward thinking. And in many ways they are. But they don't seem to mind nickel and diming their workers. They don't really care that our health care is second rate and financially we are at a disadvantage (no 401K, no employer matched savings, paid vacations etc). They don't mind taking smaller budgets from a network and ask us to cut our rate, or tell us to not eat too much when we're on the road.

But what about the art? The art, the accolades, are all off the backs of the producers, associate producers and other crew who bust their humps to work physically demanding 20 hour days sometimes without breaking for food, that deal with intense logistics in emotionally complex situations (working with addicts, rape victims, religious zealots, any kind of intense personality you can think of, we've worked with).

I've never been in any serious danger (unless you count conflict zones without real security or hazard pay) but I've done some weird stuff - washing a boss's thong comes to mind. Fine, it wasn't pleasant but I was the bottom of the barrel on a small team, I felt I had to. This is not shit my friends that work in finance would ever DREAM of being asked to do. Drive a crew through a hurricane on 3 hours of sleep - been there, done that. There are no boundaries - if the executive producer or director asks you to do something - you are expected to do it. And they are happy to remind you of how long the line is behind you. I should be grateful, mind you, not entitled. And I certainly shouldn't be getting any ideas about standard rates, over time pay and health insurance.

The icing on the top of the cake is that when you get sick for working 6 weeks straight, you get the pleasure of paying for time off to be sick (If you can afford it), if you're left alone by your team and aren't on some crazy deadline. (You always are, so there goes your dream vacation of being home sick in bed). Not to mention that you're paying out of pocket for your own insurance (I pay just over $300 a month for CATASTROPHE insurance, with a $6,000 deductible)

I could go on and on but you get the picture - the industry is dysfunctional. I love what I do, and I'm not afraid of hard work, I wouldn't even be able to bitch about all this if I wasn't working hard enough to still be here. I just want industry standards that say fair is fair.

How did we get here?

I was a on reality shoot which intended to shoot on the cranes in Long Beach. We proceeded to take an entire crew to the top of one of these cranes for a scout. Not a single person was wearing a harness, nor was a safety representative on the scout. After taking the meeting on the arm of one of these cranes, the scout moved back down to the ground and continued. Mid-meeting, a coke can which someone from our crew had left 300 feet above us came crashing down into our meeting. It could have easily killed or caused serious injury.

That same show, which was basically a cross between the Amazing Race and the Bourne Identity, has a scene planned for the farmer's market downtown. When the two contestants exited the market and fled into the streets of downtown LA, the producers charged, "Follow them!" and several crews spilled into the open-to-traffic streets of Los Angeles. Quite possibly the most dangerous thing I have ever seen, and all to make a silly game show.

Footnote: That show, did turn Union and became one of the best experiences of my reality career. We executed some spectacular stunts safely and everyone was aware of what was going on at all times. It was more a function of some smart people at the head of that production company than it was the Union contract, but it certainly helped.

The point is that there is an illusion of safety inherently built into Show Business. Because "everyone has a boss" there is the assumption that someone above you has your back, but without a union contract, even with the best intentions there is no enforcement, no accountability.

Production Companies and Networks cry poor. There is no line item for safety or "doing it the right way." All production requires compromise, but it seems reality shows tend to look at safety as the one of the first things to ignore.

All kinds of claims that "if this show was Union, they'd shut it down," Meanwhile, small production companies with a few shows on the air are sold for tens of millions of dollars after their hit shows have faded.

How did we get here? To some extent, I think we got here because the expectations of slowly changed. In the beginning, a show was essentially a news crew, 2 cameras and a sound guy, maybe a producer to take notes, but through the years, these shows have evolved, they have been taken "out of the house" and into locations that require more work to make them safe, more permits, more lighting (that could be knocked over in an open to the public location). Basically more. And the budgets have not increased in kind. Networks beat up production companies to make it for less, so production companies make up budgets that are as fictional as the conceits of the reality shows they are selling. Since there is, for all intents and purpose, no back end for the executive producers, they skim their fees off every line item they possibly can. Three shows, one line producer, you bet. Location manager? Why do we need that, we have an associate producer to do that. Nevermind that the associate producer is also responsible for driving talent to set, picking up craft service and logging the footage at day's end.

It's a race to the bottom, and no one sees themselves as accountable, they only see the liability that they could incur. Its a horrible statement on humanity, but there it is.

Previously

Reality TV Stories volumes one, two, three, and four.

[Photo: AP]