They may not be under-age moppets toiling in Dickensian work-houses, but like Oliver Twist, writer-producers in New York City’s reality TV industry are saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Their collective voices were heard today during testimony before the New York City Council’s Civil Service & Labor Committee, which is investigating allegations of sweatshop conditions at the city’s reality TV production houses. Although invited, executives from those companies opted not to attend.
Lowell Peterson, executive director of the WGA East, estimated that some 15,000 New Yorkers are currently working in nonfiction television. Approximately 2,200 are writers and producers who “often work 12, 14, 16 hours or more per day,” the WGA East said in The Real Reality: Working Conditions in the Nonfiction and Reality Television Industry in NYC. The a report, presented to the council, recommends codifying reality-TV production practices. “Eight-hour days are rare,” according to the report. The writers “often work weeks or even months without a day off. Five-day weeks are also rare. And 88% of producers and associate producers said they were ‘never’ paid overtime on their current jobs. When coupled with periods of unemployment between jobs, and no paid time off (vacation or sick leave) allowed while on a job, these exhausting work schedules lead to severe burn-out.”
“Today you will hear the tale of two television industries,” Peterson told the committee. “Most of our members work in the part of the industry that provides good benefits, good pay, good middle-class careers. Today you are investigating the other part of the industry – nonfiction or ‘reality’ TV – which is almost entirely nonunion. People in that part of the industry work brutally long hours without overtime pay, without health or pension benefits, without paid time off, without the basic protections they deserve.”
The guild has been organizing reality show writers and producers in New York for the last five years. So far, it’s only signed contracts with three of the more than 20 companies there that each employ more than 50 writer-producers. It’s been trying to get a contract with ITV Studios, producers of A&E’s The First 48 and TLC’s Four Weddings, for the past four years.
So-called “wage theft” – the non-payment of overtime through the misclassification of employees as freelancers – dominated much of the testimony. Sarah Leberstein, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said that this widespread practice “illegally depresses labor costs and cheats workers out of the wages they’ve earned.” City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, who chaired the hearing, noted the city and state are “losing tax revenue” as a consequence of the practice.
Reality TV shows are currently not eligible to receive New York film tax subsidies, although Peterson said that industry executives are currently lobbying to be included in those tax breaks. Miller, a former union president, said he would strongly oppose extending those subsidies to reality TV unless the industry stops mistreating workers. “I find it appalling,” he said, “that the executives of these industries have not shown up to justify their positions nor to justify their asking for millions of dollars of subsidies in taxpayer dollars so they can continue to make a lot of money and exploit workers.”
The WGA report said working under these conditions isn’t sustainable over the long term. “Last month, I worked 18 days straight without a break,” said one writer-producer in the report. “Each of these days averaged about 13-14 hours, including one day where I worked from 10 am on Friday until 8 am on Saturday, and was back at work from 3:30 pm Saturday until midnight. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life and I felt lucky when I got paid regular time for the two weekends I worked straight through.”
The report said that jobs in NYC’s reality TV sector grew 20% from 2001-2011, while jobs in the rest of the local economy dropped 5% in the same period. “It’s not that this television industry, the reality TV part, is weak and impoverished,” Peterson testified. “To the contrary, more and more hours of cable and network TV are filled with nonfiction ‘reality’ shows. The industry is booming. Profits are ballooning. Smart investors and production company executives are placing heavy bets that the profits will continue to grow.”
Veteran non-fiction television producer David Van Taylor testified this morning about how the companies are “squeezing freelancers beyond the limits of the law.” Story editor Loren Veloski described “a beleaguered and exhausted” workforce subjected to “inhumanely long hours” and “rampant and systematic wage theft.”
The WGA called for a host of changes to improve the lot of its members, including:
* A Code of Conduct that would provide for reasonable production budgets and production schedules
* Adequate staffing levels;
* Guarantees that employees will not be required to work excessive hours, and that all wage and hour laws are honored;
* Paid time off;
* Basic benefits including company-paid health coverage;
* A commitment to honor the right of employees to select representatives for collective bargaining and to negotiate reasonable agreements.