Yesterday, we brought you true stories of people who work behind the scenes in reality (or "nonfiction") television. Since then, we've been flooded with more emails from industry insiders, detailing poor working conditions. We bring you some of them below.
Unlike many of their brethren in other areas of television and film production, reality TV workers are not unionized, and tend to be paid less, get fewer benefits, and have far fewer workplace protections as a result. Here is a sampling of what we've heard just in the past 24 hours.
From a veteran reality TV showrunner
As with many others who commented, I have never been paid overtime, vacation days or weekends. I work on a flat rate, and that typically means working upwards of 12 or 15 hours a day for 7 days a week. I work alongside cameramen and audio guys who receive pay for their overtime (they are only allowed to work 12 hour days), meal penalties (they get paid a fee if they are not fed every six hours) and turnaround (a minimum amount of time to rest between shifts). Oftentimes I will work one shift with a camera team, say goodbye to them, and then work the next shift with a fresh crew. I am expected to write scripts, story outlines or download notes at night after wrap. I am expected to drive a van full of sleeping people two hours to a hotel after only sleeping four hours.
I have never received health insurance, despite working continuously for one production company for 4 years.
I have worked on many shows where the production company submits fake callsheets to the insurance company in order to get around labor violations, and at other companies where the production company asks the crew to lie on their timecards. I've worked on shows where I later found out there was no insurance, and others where I had been told safety plans were in place only to find once on location that those were cut from the budget.
The biggest problem in our industry, besides the complete and total disregard for the health, safety and well-being of the production crew, is the lack of oversight. There is no overall entity (like a Labor & Practices Department) looking out for shady practices. Instead, there are hundreds of production companies running around, each deciding for themselves what they deem safe and acceptable. There is no-one to speak up to, and no recourse when something goes wrong.
I have started speaking up about safety on set. I mean, I almost died while making a fucking cable TV show. There is a staggering amount of negligence on shoots. The boat I was traveling in had no safety lights, navigation lights, life jackets or safety equipment. The boat driver only had one eye and (we found out later) had been involved in multiple accidents caused by traveling too fast. We got in two accidents in one night. In the first accident I was thrown from the boat, knocked unconscious underwater, and pulled to safety by my cameraman. I tore my shoulder in five places. In the second accident (which happened 45 minutes later), I ruptured a disc. When I returned to New York and told the production company that I needed surgery, I was fired. I went on to have shoulder and spine surgery and have spent the last year recovering. I do not receive workers' comp and have been hemorrhaging my savings account.
I am so grateful that the media is starting to report on the labor violations in reality TV. I really hope it will change in my lifetime.
Dangerous working conditions
I got out of "the game" of reality TV a few years ago, thank God. But in addition to the horrible an unethical labor abuses, sexual harassment, and emotional abuse others have mentioned, I think it's also relevant to mention the physically dangerous working conditions under which reality tv people are commonly forced to work.
Basically, in the context of those 20-hour day, 6-day weeks, PAs and Production Coordinators are also asked to drive large vans and trucks, and pressured to get from point A to point B more quickly than is humanly possible.
I used to work on a show that shot all over the country in lots of rural areas, and it was not uncommon at all for me to drive a passenger van full of crew members on treacherous back roads back to the hotel at the end of a 18-hour shooting day at 11pm, while basically dozing off. And because the camera operator and the sound guy got overtime pay until we pulled up at the hotel, I was under lots of pressure to get there as fast as I could. Thankfully I never got into any accidents or killed anybody, but it seemed like every other episode or so, some PA would drive too fast in icy conditions and go off the road, or total a parked car, or have some other type of near miss.
Pay rates for a reality producer
I'm a reality tv producer in LA in my 30's. Between that, and my former career as a freelance writer, I've never had health insurance. Yet I'm expected to work 12 hour days at least five days a week, or six (and sometimes seven) days a week if necessary. And if I get sick, well, that's on me. There's a tremendous amount of pressure to never call in, no matter how sick you are, and god forbid you're sick two days in a row. You better feel better within 24 hours if you expect to have a job to return to.
Last week, I interviewed for a producer job at a production company that was just acquired by one of the major studios. The show is for a broadcast network. The job SHOULD pay at least $2200 per week, but this net is notorious for lowballing it's producers. This morning, I received an email inviting me to accept the position and come work for them at a rate of $1200 per week. GEE WHIZ, THANKS GUYS. That's less than I was making when I was an associate producer.
If I wasn't relatively new to producing at this level, I'd have insisted on at least $2000 in my reply, but I told them I'd do it for $1800 firm. I don't expect to get the job.
I know that those seem like ridiculous numbers and I should be grateful and #firstworldproblems and all that, but I am so fucking sick of non-scripted and the absurd expectations they have of their employees. We should unionize, but the sad fact is that there are probably several thousand people within a few miles of where I'm sitting in LA right now who would murder to do that job for $1200 per week or even less.
Health care for a reality show producer
I have never received personal time off, sick days, vacation time, paid vacations— even on holidays where the company is forced to close, we do not get paid— but we also can't come into the office and work if we'd like to get paid for the holiday. I have probably clocked in over 1000+ hours in overtime throughout my career and have not received an extra dime because thats the "industry norm". I was eligible for health insurance at [company] and got it for 3 months— at a whopping $150+ a paycheck for a midlevel plan. I am eligible at [other company] for insurance starting August but my project wraps the beginning of September so it might not even be worth it since I am not guaranteed job security at this company. I currently pay out of pocket right now $481/mo in health insurance thanks to Obamacare. Prior, I was paying $597/mo. Plus rent (I live by myself). Plus utilities. Plus regular bills...
Many of us live and breathe this business and are extremely proud of our work because it IS our child. We nurse an idea from concept to executing to completion, leaving relationships, friends, families, and social obligations behind to amerce ourselves and reach towards a coveted 8-10pm timeslot for a 22 or 45 min weekly program. We do it because we love it. We do it because we want to prove our skills and talent. We do it in hopes of being the next big things and proving that this realm of programing is still creative and innovative, and to reach the masses with a message.
I encourage as many people to speak up as possible. Change isn't easy but if we push, it will come. It's important not to be bullied by these large production companies and prove that we're worth a damn because without the strong industry professionals, they're nothing.
Family leave, or not
[For ten years] I mostly worked on feature length films but when the amount of feature films being shot in Los Angeles began to decline, I took a job on a popular reality show for one of the big three networks. I worked as a department head for three seasons until the end of my third season when I had a baby and was promptly replaced by my own assistant for a third of what I was being paid. I never received a call or email regarding my own termination. One day I was at a social gathering with some film friends when it came out that the show had ended it's hiatus and had been shooting for several weeks. I was left without a job and no legal ground to stand on for being replaced while on family leave.
This particular show was a constant revolving door of production personnel, and to be honest I spent all three seasons wondering if I would have a job from one week to the next. I was monetarily compensated for my experience, but I know that a lot of the crew members were working upwards of 20 hours per day with no turnaround for $150 a day (and their per diem was somehow included in this rate). In the non-union world, solidarity doesn't exist. There will always be someone willing and able to work for less than you.
I have been working in the film/tv industry my entire adult life, and I can say without hesitation that reality is looked as the worst of the worst by crew workers.
If you are an employee in the reality TV industry who wants to share your story, you can email Hamilton@Gawker.com.