The Grim Realities of Reality TV: Workers Speak

The rise of reality TV programming over the past two decades has been driven in large part by the fact that reality shows are cheap to produce. Labor costs are a big reason why. What does that mean for the people who work on these shows? Allow some of them to tell you.

Last week, a union that is working with employees of reality (or news/ nonfiction) television shows put us in contact with a number of people who were willing to share their stories of working in the industry. These workers have varying experiences, but they all presumably share the conviction that a union would improve their working conditions. You are free to decide whether or not that colors your view of their stories. Many of these employees are treated as freelancers, and they do not have the workplace protections that their unionized brethren in other sectors of the entertainment industry enjoy. Their experiences vary, but they all go to show that, past a thin veneer of glamour, the TV industry is just another job.

From a veteran producer, writer, and director on nonfiction shows

I've never received health insurance from any job in television. I've gotten it from my wife for the last 12 years... There is simply no way that I could have a career in non-fiction TV if we didn't get health insurance from my wife's job. Or, put it this way: if I wasn't married when I got cancer, even though I was producing and directing TV series with budgets in the millions of dollars, I either would have died, or gone hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to pay for medical treatment.

I never receive any percentage of the profits on TV programs that I write, produce or direct.

I've never received overtime pay, even on weeks when I've worked 80 or 90 hours. I rarely get paid for holidays. I almost never get paid vacation days. I get a flat, weekly rate, period.

The creative people who made non-fiction TV shows are not receiving any of the profits their work generates. I've gotten on airplanes and seen shows that I produced playing in-flight. I've been in other countries and seen shows that I produced being broadcast in foreign markets. Networks are being paid a lot of money when they sell the shows in those markets. We receive nothing.

— I have a close family member who works in scripted TV as a freelance Production Manager. She is a member of the DGA (Director's Guild). She earns more than three times what I make. Her health insurance is provided by her union and paid for by her employers. She has a robust pension plan. She receives residual payments when programs she works on are profitable. Her job is important, but it is not creative. The writers and producers of those scripted programs do extremely well - far better than even she does. They all receive high fees, excellent benefits and residuals - all because of collective bargained contracts and union representation in film and TV. And that does not impede their bosses - the production companies and networks - from ALSO profiting enormously from those shows...

There are no grievance procedures for freelancers in this industry who are treated poorly by production companies. You are considered lucky to get any job at all, even if you are well respected or "in demand." For example, recently I accepted a job to produce and direct one episode of a new cable true-crime series that was considered to be a high profile gig. I turned down three other offers to take the job. The "contract" I signed stipulated that I would be on the job for 15 weeks at a flat rate. (BTW, it also stipulated that I would work 6 day weeks, so just in case I had to work on a saturday they would not have to pay me extra.) After 4 days on the job, the showrunner called me to tell me that they production company was "having issues" with the network so they were shutting down production and the whole staff was being let go. They offered to pay me through the end of the week. I told them that I had lost three jobs in order to take their job. They didn't care. I tried to get them to pay me at least 2 weeks severance. They refused. There was nothing I could do. My "contract" had nothing in it about a kill fee, and stated clearly that I was being hired "at will" and could be let go at any time for any reason. If I had tried to insert any clauses to the contract that would have protected me in case of something like this happening, they would have refused. These jobs are take them or leave them.

Unpaid labor by freelancers

I've worked for 4 different NYC production companies.

*For one production company 3 weeks after my producer job ended, I was emailed my script which had been heavily edited by senior producers and asked to check it for accuracy. The process took several hours, I wasn't offered any remuneration, yet expected to do it. (if this was a situation with other professionals, they'd be offered payment for their time). If I didn't do it, I knew that in addition to having my piece end up being inaccurate I would seriously endanger any chance of working for them again.

*I was on a shoot for a production company. I had submitted a treatment (or "story beat sheet," it's a detailed outline with the story flow and all the points you'll make supporting them) to the executive producer a day earlier. I didn't get his notes until 11 PM that night. I had to edit the treatment and get approval before the shoot began the next day. I was up until 2:30 AM making the requested changes, the shoot that day began at 6:30 AM, leaving me 4 hours of sleep before a grueling 14-hour day of shooting.

*For a large production company I had to work until midnight several days a week and a weekend day in order to make deadline. I wasn't paid anything for the overtime while my editor earned time and a half for his work hours. (At least if you put in weekend time for a staff (aka full-time) job you know that you get 3 weeks of paid vacation, benefits, and job security in return.)

In this industry where as a freelancer the work is unpredictable and there is no job security, production companies bank on the fact that you'll do anything they ask just so that you'll be able to work for them again. This is why these labor abuses continue unchecked.

Freelancer vs. staff job: a rude awakening

Where to begin? After 8 years of being on staff for cable networks, it was a rude awakening joining the freelance workforce who produces programs for the same networks I used to work at. No more free massages at work. No one hour+ lunches. Who has time for lunch? Maybe grab a salad at 3pm and eat a few bites at your desk while working. No health, dental, vision, free yoga after work or gym reimbursements. Corporate credit card? Forget it. We often have to use personal credit cards while on the road making it easy for the company to reject your expenses and only partially reimburse you. As a freelancer you are a second class citizen (at best).

Any freelancer who tell you they love the flexibility has never held a cushy staff job!

Production companies negotiate a weekly rate but there is no discussion of how many hours per day or how many days per week you'll need to log to make their impossibly tight deadlines. It's assumed you'll work on weekends and the only question is, "what time will you get in?" There's not a thought given to extra pay. However, if the lack if sleep and exhaustion wear down your immune system and you get sick, you'll be docked a day of pay. And that's if they don't convince you to come in anyway with strep or a high fever or broken limb.

I made the mistake of getting pregnant while producing. Now I know why I've only worked with a handful of moms over the span of my 15 yr career in production. No sick days off, no single stall bathrooms so get ready to puke in earshot of co-workers for the first three months. No consideration is given to physical limitations while growing a babe in your womb. You're still expected to carry your share of heavy equipment because the company decided to save money and not hire a PA...

Rates are ok. Until you do an hourly breakdown. Recently the three production companies opposed to unionization attempts by their employees sent out a combined statement (ah, the irony of them needing to organize to lobby against unions). They claimed to pay much more than minimum wage. They failed to mention these employees are all college educated, most have masters and many have MFAs or PHDs and years of specialized experience. They also forgot to mention if you count all the actual hours these staffers work and factor that into their rate it will be hovering right around minimum wage.

Lots more to say but I'd better get back to work or I'll be here til midnight.

Tired of hearing this is "industry standard"

I am an Associate Producer working in Non-fiction production in NYC below is my story. As you can tell, I want to remain anonymous.

I am a freelancer and so easily replaceable. I fear for the future and I am so easily abused.

I worked at a company that I will call The Blueberry Production Company. At Blueberry, I was a young rising AP. I took on more and more challenges to prove myself until I was overworked on a show that was understaffed and unorganized. Including myself, we had a producer who was there part time and a production manager. We were preparing for a two week shoot out of state. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

For two weeks straight, I worked for twenty hours a day. That's a 140-hour work week. My rate was $850/week, which meant I was making $6.07/hour. In New York State, that is less then minimum wage. I received no over time pay for the extra 200 hours I worked just in those two weeks. Instead I was given 4 comp days for the weekends that I worked, which means I was given compensation for 32 hours of work and not at an overtime rate. But I should have been thankful because Blueberry could have chosen to give me no compensation at all. And I was told that these crazy hours were industry standard. This of course was not the last time I'd be working a 20 day.

What's worse is that the producer I was working with bullied me because of my age. He was also overworked and stressed and found that I was the easiest person to take it out on and often made me feel like I was not qualified for my job. He also asked me why I never talked about anyone that I'm dating. He also told our fellow team mates that he believed that I was attracted to him. I feared speaking up, but when I did, it took weeks to give him a slap on the wrist. And my concerns were only taken seriously by management 7 months later. Then it took another 2 months to speak to this producer about his actions. And his response was that his actions were normal in this industry so I should get used to them.

I'm tired of fearing that I'm easily replaceable and I'm tired of hearing that this is industry standard. These companies abuse us, they don't take our concerns seriously, they are taking our wages from us, not providing us with health care or vacation time. These benefits would be provided to any other full time worker and here we are working more than full time. We should be changing the standards and not giving companies like Blueberry the opportunity to find loopholes to take our wages.

If you are employed in the reality TV industry and you would like to share your story, you can email Hamilton@Gawker.com.

[Photo: AP]