As factual television programs begin to overtake broadcast schedules everywhere, the working conditions for those who toil to make these shows are coming to light. In New York City, City Council promised to do everything in its power to eliminate the sweatshop conditions that are plaguing workers in reality TV in the Big Apple.
The Committee of Civil Service and Labor held a hearing into bad, and often illegal working conditions in the non-scripted television industry. The meeting was instigated by a damning report on labor abuses released by Writer’s Guild America East, and while the report looked specifically at the New York market, Canadian factual TV workers should heed the messages that emerged from this important hearing:
1. The exploitation in factual TV is an international problem. Lowell Peterson, head of The Writer’s Guild America Eastdescribed hearing from workers about low wages, long hours with no overtime pay and no paid time off. Sound familiar? The Canadian Media Guild reported similar working conditions here after compiling results from a survey last year. In the UK, workers are reporting similar exploitations.
2. Profits in factual TV are soaring. Cable networks in the US which depend heavily on factual TV to fill their schedules report 50-billion dollars in revenue annually. Discovery’s CEO received a total compensation in 2012 of nearly $50-million. Here in Canada, revenues may not be that eye-popping, but they are still healthy. The CMPA reports that Independent production in Canada is a $2.3-billion industry.
3. Huge multinational companies are buying up small independent production companies and turning TV into a Wal-Mart-like operation. A huge buyout of Leftfield Entertainment (makers of Pawn Stars and Real Housewives) by British company ITV (makers of Kitchen Nightmares and Four Weddings) has created a huge multinational TV powerhouse. An environment in which a few big companies control the majority of television production will not be good for workers. In fact, WGAE has already levelled accusations at ITV of stealing an average of $30,000 a year from its writers and producers. It’s a trend we don’t want to see here in Canada.
4. Our colleagues in scripted television are treated better than us, and have an industry that allows for well-being, economic stability and career opportunities.Peterson of WGAE said it’s a tale of two industries. In one television industry, writers for scripted productions work under a collective bargaining agreement that ensures health benefits, a pension plan, and residual payments from content that is broadcast multiple times. In the other industry, writers for reality television shows work long hours for substandard pay with no benefits, and no right to residuals or royalties. We are skilled labour just as our friends in scripted are, and should enjoy similar working conditions.
5. Without benefits and proper working conditions, workers in factual TV everywhere are at risk of economic hardship. New York-basedreality TV workers took to the stand to testify that it is becoming increasingly hard to make a decent living in this sector. Producer David Van Taylor told his heartbreaking tale of having a wife with cancer, while being squeezed for less money and longer hours by production companies who aren’t playing fair. He has no health plan from his employer so forks out $1600 a month for a plan that will help pay for his wife’s treatment. Increasingly, reality TV workers are becoming the working-poor. Without access to benefits that safeguard the future, any unforeseen circumstance—like a health emergency—could mean bankruptcy.
6. People are dying and getting hurt making factual TV. There have been numerous reports of deaths on unsafe reality TV shoots. Other reality TV workers at the hearing spoke about having to endure very unsafe conditions to do their job. Another worker testified that she has been shooting in a warehouse when member of the crew stepped on a rusty nail, and was encouraged to keep working until it was convenient to go to the hospital. Another producer paid for a hotel room out of her own pocket for a PA who had been on set for 18 hours and was expected to drive home. Others spoke of being tear-gassed and enduring sub-zero temperatures for long stretches.
7. Independent Producers know that what they’re doing is wrong, and could be breaking the law. Not one production company showed up to the hearing to defend themselves or the industry, suggesting that they know they can be raked over the coals. Workers testified that they are regularly reporting being hired as “permalance”, which means that they are permanent employees at a company, but paid as freelancers, so that companies can escape paying into benefits. Also, production companies are telling employees to falsify timesheets to reflect that they’ve only worked a standard work day, when their hours are much longer than that. Paying someone as a contractor when they should be classified as an employee is illegal, as is falsifying time-keeping records.
8. Taxpayers are paying for production of factual TV everywhere. In Canada, tax credits are a very popular program which enables millions of dollars of production. In New York, reality TV isn’t generally eligible for tax credits like scripted television, but production companies are lobbying heavily for that to change. When taxpayers and governments are so invested in the production of television worldwide, they should have a say on working conditions.
9. Workers in the US are fighting back. Workers in New York are beginning to organize. The WGAE has successfully organized in a handful of shops, and they’ve won some very hard-fought battles so that their workers are entitled to reasonable workloads, health benefits, compensation scales, and paid time off. If they have better working conditions, there will hopefully be a trickle-down effect to reality TV shops everywhere.
10. We need to fight back too. The Canadian Media Guild is working hard to get better working conditions for workers in Canadian factual television. Here’s what you can do:
-Fill out the survey to help determine the issues that are facing workers in Factual TV
-Learn about the CMG’s campaign for fairness
-Fill out a confidential CMG card, that will give CMG a mandate to discuss these issues with Independent Producers.
Denise O’Connell is a producer, director and writer with 20 years of experience producing lifestyle, reality, news, current affairs, documentary and children’s programming.