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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 14, 2014, 7:00 am

The Real World of Reality TV: Worker Exploitation

BY David Dayen

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The 2007-08 Writers Guild strike drew big headlines, but many of the writers and editors that make Hollywood run are victims of wage theft and other basic labor law violations. (EvilMonkey / Wikimedia)  

On September 10, 16 editors on the Bravo reality show Shahs of Sunset walked off the job in Hollywood after informing their employer, Ryan Seacrest Productions, of their intentions to unionize. The next day, Bravo announced they would delay the premiere of the fourth season. 

“We thought it was about time, in the fourth season of a popular show, to get health care and pension benefits,” says Vanessa Hughes, one of the editors seeking representation through the Motion Picture Editors Guild, a division of the International Association of Stage and Theatrical Employees (IATSE). “We thought it’d take a day or so of picketing.”

But on September 26, Bravo announced they would take over production of the show, and the striking editors would be fired—leading workers to believe that Bravo would complete the season with scabs

None of the fired editors ever spoke directly with their bosses or the network, hearing about their termination through a press release. “We appreciate the passion, commitment and contributions these editors made to the fourth season of Shahs of Sunset,” Ryan Seacrest Productions wrote in a statement.

In response, IATSE filed unfair labor practice charges against Bravo, held rallies in New York and Los Angeles, and asked current and former editors for Bravo programs to sign a petition, denouncing the anti-union retaliation and showing solidarity with the striking workers. 

I signed that petition. In between writing about the nitty-gritty details of economics and finance, I have spent nearly two decades editing for television and film. If you name a station on your cable package, the odds are pretty good I’ve worked on a show for it. And of the dozens of non-fiction television shows I’ve edited these many years, only one was a union shop, and that job lasted so briefly that I didn’t qualify for membership.

“It’s incredible,” said California Assembly member Isadore Hall at a rally for the striking workers last week outside the headquarters of Bravo’s parent company, NBCUniversal, “that you can flip on one channel and the workers who made the show get good wages and benefits, and you flip over to another channel and they aren’t.” But that’s precisely the case. 

Hollywood prides itself on being a union town, but this growing segment of the business, so-called “unscripted” TV, has matured without industry-wide representation. Today almost half of all programming on broadcasting and cable is unscripted, generating $6 billion in annual revenue, according to Nielsen. And the vast majority of them are non-union. Now that various guilds want to change that, networks and production companies have dug in their heels in opposition.

In truth, no TV show beamed into your home is unscripted. “Nobody sticks a camera at a rock and that’s a show,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. Behind-the-scenes producers, editors and writers (though they typically never get such billing) transform hundreds of hours of raw material into something coherent, and at its best, entertaining. 

As an editor, I’ve had to manufacture stories out of virtually nothing. I’ve written voiceover and even lines of replacement dialogue, which later get inserted over a reaction shot. I once read a “scratch track” voiceover in my edit bay so I’d have something to edit images over, and my voice wound up on Fox as part of an awards show (without added compensation as voiceover talent, I might add).  I’ve performed virtually every task a writer or producer would when constructing a scripted show.

“I think if you ask most editors, they’d say that reality is harder to do,” said striking editor Vanessa Hughes.

Unions initially ignored unscripted TV as a niche cable product. But the success of Survivor and American Idol in the early 2000s showed that such shows could generate big audiences. 

More important, as cable networks proliferated and needed programming 24 hours a day, they saw in unscripted shows the potential to fill their schedules with low-budget programming, with no high-paid actors, union writers or crews. And no one has rights to residuals or ancillary benefits after the shows wrap. 

“The payroll cost goes away once the lights go out on the production,” the WGA’s Peterson said. 

Reality shows have expanded less because of their popularity and more because of their profitability. Margins are as high as 60 percent above production costs, and the threat of non-union reality shows gives leverage to networks when they negotiate union contracts for scripted shows.

Typically, independent production companies pitch and sell shows to networks. Production companies receive a fixed budget, hiring contract workers on a freelance basis to produce and edit the episodes. This gives networks, often subsidiaries of large conglomerates (Bravo, as noted, is owned by NBCUniversal), plausible deniability on the labor practices in their industry.

Freelance employees like me get no health care or pension benefits. If production takes the day off for a holiday, workers don’t get paid. There are no sick days or personal days. If start times get pushed back, so does your salary. I have had start dates pushed back for weeks while I waited without getting paid for the time I expected to begin work. Lower-level workers are often unpaid interns, despite federal court rulings against the practice. And as networks try to squeeze more profits, budgets have shrunk over the years, with more responsibility placed on fewer employees to work longer hours at stagnant or even lower wages. 

In a sense, I’m lucky to be in post-production: Field shoots can be downright brutal, working long days (I’ve heard up to 20 hours) under hazardous conditions. Crew members have told grim stories of toiling through hurricanes, production assistants paid $600 per week suffering from heat exhaustion, and myriad other safety threats.

The biggest complaint for unscripted TV workers is wage theft, in an industry where eight-hour workdays are almost non-existent. “There’s a tremendous amount of overtime abuse in this industry,” Lowell Peterson of the WGA says. The union put out a study last November showing that New York-based unscripted production companies stole $40 million from writers and producers annually.

Several years ago, I started a job, and on the first day, the post supervisor handed me time sheets for the entire 12-week run, asking me to fill them out immediately stating 11-hour days. This is disturbingly common, particularly the request to write in overtime hours while being given a “flat” rate. You may have negotiated, for example, a pay rate of $420 a day, but according to your time sheet, you make $240 a day, with three hours of overtime getting you another $180. The difference is that you can never accrue overtime even if you work 55 hours a week, though the production company can claim to nominally comply with overtime laws. And 55 hours would be a slow week on some shows.

This exacerbates the peer pressure to work long hours to meet tight deadlines; I’ve been told outright by producers to stay late because I “got to go home” at a reasonable hour the day before. In the WGA study, 85% of respondents said they never receive overtime pay, and nearly half reported that their time cards never reflect their hours worked.

The freelance nature of the business makes organizing incredibly difficult. My average stay on any one program is about 12 weeks, if not less. As soon as you get to know your co-workers, you’re usually on to the next gig. “It’s hard to develop a sense of community on a show,” striking editor Albarn Binkley says. 

Often half the workers never see one another, because production companies stay efficient by booking night shifts. I worked lots of night shifts early in my career. Once, I came in at night despite feeling sick, because a day lost to illness meant a day without pay. To get me through the shift, I took what I thought was regular pain relief medicine. But it was Advil PM. I fell asleep in my chair, and eventually had to drowsily drive about 20 miles home, which I accomplished by rolling down all the windows and blasting the radio the whole ride.

As short-term contract workers who are often new to the industry and without a strong labor consciousness, reality production staffers rely on good relationships with production companies for their next gig, amid constant competition from others willing to work for less to break into the business. 

“You’re not going to get a lot of Norma Raes, though we have some,” says Lowell Peterson.

Despite these hazards, people may view these grievances as “first-world problems” from well-paid workers lucky to be employed in a creative industry. Most producers and editors do enjoy their work and take home decent salaries. But they have been denied industry-standard overtime and benefits for years, unlike their counterparts on shows where the script happened to be written before the shoot instead of afterwards. 

“We’re both making content for TV that makes a lot of money,” said Thad Nurski, another Shahs of Sunset editor. “Why shouldn’t we get the same benefits?”

What’s more, though the industry cries poor, the money flowing in can no longer be denied. ITV, a production company conglomerate out of London, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last year to buy up competitors.  Companies also get massive largesse from state and local governments to create good-paying jobs. Just this year, California passed production tax credits worth $330 million for film and television. That money goes directly to offset production costs—which, for unscripted TV, don’t get passed on to those doing the work.

Labor organizing of unscripted programming has progressed in fits and starts. In 2005, WGA West tried to organize “reality storytellers,” a classification that included writers, producers and editors (disclosure: I signed a card asking them to collectively bargain on my behalf). But when producers walked out of America’s Next Top Model in 2006 seeking representation, executives finished the season themselves and fired the workers—a tactic being replicated on Shahs of Sunset eight years later. When WGA West ended a prolonged strike with the studios in 2009, reality workers got squeezed out of the deal at the last minute. For many years, I simply resigned myself to the fact that workers in this industry would never get the same treatment as their scripted television counterparts.

WGA East’s organizing campaign, which began four years ago, has focused on organizing at the production company level rather than show-by-show or network-by-network. Peterson, the executive director, explained that since production companies do the hiring and set the terms of employment, they were the natural candidates for organizing, rather than shows that could vanish after eight episodes. 

So far, WGA East has won NLRB elections and collective bargaining agreements at three companies, with two more in progress. “We’ve won every election we’ve tried,” Peterson said. IATSE has made some gains as well, recently ratifying a contract for editors on Survivor

Peterson estimated that around 20 percent of the industry is organized at this point, up from almost nothing several years ago. “But we need a lot more to get critical mass,” he said.

Organizing freelance workers has also provided opportunity, Peterson said, because everybody has a contact at a different production company, offering in-roads to organize. And despite the fractured nature of the business, the Shahs of Sunset workers who were fired in retaliation have been given lots of encouragement. Some of the editors on Shahs of Sunset started work on a Monday, and walked out with their co-workers on a Wednesday. 

“If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s the community support we’re getting,” editor Albarn Binkley says.

Actually, the silver lining grew wider at the end of last week, amid continuing pressure and picketing. On Friday night, Bravo and Ryan Seacrest Productions relented, offering the Shahs of Sunset editors a union contract including pension and health care benefits. The editors happily ratified the agreement

While momentum is definitely on labor’s side, much work remains before unionized writers and editors can establish pay equity between scripted and unscripted programming. The rank-and-file will have to scrap for virtually everything. “It’s part of the trend of what the country is going through,” said editor Vanessa Hughes. “If you want basic human dignity, you’re called a socialist.”

David Dayen is a freelance journalist and the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

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