Reality television can seem exciting and glamorous. Working on reality television, much less so. As the following stories from "professionally abused" insiders show, reality TV workers will continue to be beaten down as long as they have no union to defend them.
Since our first post on this issue last week, we've received dozens of emails from reality TV industry veterans at all levels. In their stories of long hours, dangerous working conditions with few regulations, and workplace abuses by employers, some common themes arise. Employees say production companies push them too hard and mistreat them. Production companies blame the networks. And everyone seems to agree, explicitly or not, that reality TV work is much worse than other TV work due in large part to the absence of a union that could protect its far-flung workforce. Many of them are freelancers and, as our correspondents point out, they assume all the risks in this business. Their employers have little incentive to enact change.
"Being professionally abused"
I am a producer and camera operator with over 25 credits for top shows on networks like History Channel, Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel. Being professionally abused and taken advantage of is what I have had to endure to build my career and become a sought after producer on adventure reality shows, something I love to do. I think there are three glaring holes in the reality television dichotomy shared between producers and production companies.
The first lays within the blanketed weekly pay structure with no overtime. There has not been a single show that I have ever received any overtime, and on every show that I have ever worked on, I have worked dangerously long hours in difficult conditions to get the story. I love the outdoors and being close to the action, but after 12 hours or so, the luster of the day sure does wear off and everything begins to get sloppy. If I was given a daily rate for specific hours worked, then given overtime after said hours, maybe my will to work those longer hours and to get the story would be stronger.
Actually, Let's talk a little more about that sloppy work due to long hours in my second point. Sloppy is not the level of effort you want to be able to out put when say chasing tornadoes, commercial fishing, logging or covering any of the myriad of dangerous jobs that are covered by my colleagues and I all the time. On the contrary I prefer to have all my physical and mental abilities on high alert so I can make smart decisions where I avoid getting seriously injured or killed. There have been several instances where employees have died on shows and it barely makes the news. Everyone loves how dangerous the shows appear to be on television, well they appear that way for good reason, because they very much are dangerous to talent and field producer alike every time they head out for the day.
This leads to my third grievance, health insurance. My independently acquired and paid for health insurance costs $300/month with a $10,000 deductible and no dental or vision (no vision, for someone who shoots cameras along with producing on every show). If I get seriously hurt on a job the best aid I am usually offered by the production company who I am risking life and limb for has been workman's compensation except for maybe one or two who have offered life insurance packages where I had to fight to name the benefactors to be sure a settlement would not go to the production company. Workman's compensation couldn't possibly cover me for my life's expenses if an injury that occurred on a job kept me from continuing to work for and extended period of time, even paired with unemployment insurance benefits, it wouldn't cut the mustard. With my $10,000 deductible, I like the keep at least that much hidden away, which takes $10,000 out of my accounts where I am trying to build a portfolio for retirement someday.
If you try to speak up or try to fight back, the production companies WILL NOT HIRE YOU. It's a bad situation that has only gotten worse due to recent national economic problems…..even though the networks, production companies, and advertisers still make a ton of money off the people watching our work. I have spoken extensively with the WGA and they are fighting for us, but the fight is slow and I don't know if I'll ever see the fruits of their labor. Let's pick it up and get some victories on these issues, then tackle the ridiculous fact that we have never been offered residuals on any show.
Union vs. non-union treatment
I've worked as a freelance reality TV producer for over a decade in Los Angeles. I've produced over 30 different shows and have worked with most reality TV production companies in the area.
I've been saying the same thing since I started working in the industry. Production companies constantly break labor laws, abuse their employee's and get away with it. In their mind you should be grateful for the job and if you're not willing to do it, someone else will happily take your spot.
I worked on a series in which the Executive Producer would regularly verbally abuse us. The executive producer even went as far as to pickup a chair and throw it against the wall in fit of rage...On the same production, I was also made to pull a number of all nighters to get my work done. Most of the time, this was done in between two 14 hour days on set.
On another production, after working 20 hours without eating I was regularly denied 2nd meal because they only got enough for crew (who are union). I wouldn't eat lunch because I was made to get the next scene setup...this happens a lot. Also, On that same series I would regularly have to commute over an hour and drive home on less then 2 hours of sleep. I even had to drive home after working a 48 hour shift.
I did another series, I regularly worked 20-22 hour days and did this for 5 weeks straight without a single day off. I got extremely sick from exhaustion when I returned. Also, because I was filming in loud nightclub and had to turn my walkie all the way up, I ended up sacrificing some of my hearing and to this day have a constant ringing in my ears.
These are just a couple of my bad experiences. This happens on virtually every production that I've work on. This treatment is unfair and needs to stop. People accept this kind of work environment because it's standard and is going to continue to be like this until somebody does something about it.
Death, taxes, and reality TV work
I've been a writer, producer and director for 14 years now and can attest for every situation you mentioned. I just finished a job where I worked 8 weeks straight (not a single day off) where the shortest day came in at 11 hours. For all of that, I was paid a flat rate, which was neither bad nor stellar, but standard. I also had to change my title from "writer" to "supervising producer" so as not to tip off the Writer's Guild that it was I who wrote 200 pages of dialogue in nine days and would therefore have to be paid guild rates....Anyway, I digress. I wanted to share a couple of stories.
The first...I supervised a reality production during which one of the associate producers quit and filed suit against the company, rightfully claiming that he was in fact a full time employee and therefore the company should have been paying his Social Security tax. (I love that bit...Some production companies require the employee to pay the Social Security deductions and the unemployment compensation). Anyway, I was called in by the company owner and told that I should refuse any attempts at being deposed by the opposing counsel and that if I failed at this, I would no longer be a trusted hire.
Here's another....My wife is in labor and I am at the hospital. I get repeated texts, emails and phone calls asking whether I can turn around notes on a script that my supervisors had had for weeks. A year later, I was back in the hospital as my wife was having a double mastectomy due to breast cancer. I was called repeatedly to address further rounds of notes on scripts that needed to be locked, even though I had worked an 80-hour week previous to that to get the scripts done. A similar flurry of calls happened during the day of my father's funeral, but I won't get into that.
I have signed on to three pilots, turning down other work, only to have those pilots end before they started due to some network issues with no notice and no severance. I have worked for series that because of some budgeting problems have had to let staff go immediately. On other programs I have been asked to work more hours, assume more responsibilities AND take a pay cut or be let go... I have developed and sold show concepts only to be sued by the production company I have partnered with to lower my percentage. I have never been offered insurance. I have never had a paid holiday. I have never earned a sick day.
I could go on and on. This is a twisted industry and as time goes on, I wonder why I do it.
The freelancer takes all the risk
I've been in the TV business since 1980. The horror stories are all true.
I started as a secretary with benefits, paid holidays and restricted hours. I've been every kind of producer/associate/story/show/. I've worked talk and news. The cesspool of reality TV started in around '97 and it's only gotten bigger, more exploitative and more staged.
I got lucky when a friend hired me to do reality segments for a talk show and I had to join the [Directors Guild of America]. I'm going into my 13th season. I'm turning 63 and will hang onto this job as long as possible. I KNOW IF I LOSE MY DGA JOB I WILL NEVER FIND ANOTHER.
And I know exactly what the freelance landscape requires. The union reps are well aware of working conditions in the freelance world and have been trying to organize reality companies who hire freelancers for years. I'm not optimistic.
One of the chilling facts of life in the freelance world is the level of risk assignments require. From dangerous locations to wrangling interviews with psychotic people, the freelancer takes ALL THE RISK. My best hope is a huge lawsuit for production companies who set the working conditions. The reality TV situation is the no different than the non-union feature, MIDNIGHT RIDER where the freelance camera assistant was hit by a train on location.
HERE'S YOUR HEADLINE: More people will have to die or get hurt in order to change the reality TV industry. If audiences quit watching reality shows, duh… the networks will make other kinds of shows.
I notice the comments sections full of blamers who say "well, you're working in reality tv and it's trash, what do you expect?" It's supply and demand. Does anyone REALLY WANT to work on a reality show? NO!!!
After over 30 years in the business, I can tell you I have never seen harder workers than the kids working in reality.