Thrown Under the Bus: Working Conditions in Reality Television

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Denise Stapley posing for photos on the press line after winning 'Survivor: Philippines' reality show at CBS Television City on December 16, 2012, in Los Angeles, CA Denise Stapley posing for photos on the press line after winning 'Survivor: Philippines' reality show at CBS Television City on December 16, 2012, in Los Angeles, CA (Copyright: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock)

The reality TV production workforce is booming in New York City (one estimate has it at more than 12,000 jobs), but the conditions pale in comparison to the more established fiction TV industry. The industry is almost entirely freelance, and workers on reality shows routinely work 12 or 14 hour days, 7 days a week, with no overtime or benefits. Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild East, and David Van Taylor, who has worked as a creator, show-runner, producer, director, and writer, discuss the reality television industry’s conditions and why they think they should change. The New York City Council is considering promoting a Code of Conduct for the industry to try to establish some basic minimum standards of work hours, overtime, and benefits.

 A number of reality TV workers called in with very frank complaints about their industry. Here are what a few of them had to say: 

  • Maddie from Manhattan said that reality TV producers are now expected to wear many hats: "In this current paradigm we're expected to be the producer, the writer and the director for, frankly, less money than we made years ago." 
  • Bob in Brooklyn called to talk about technicians on many reality TV shows: "[They're] dealing with electricity, ladders, putting up lights in a lightning storm, ridiculous things that, you know, actually put their lives at risks."  
  • Anna in Manhattan has been a reality TV editor for 7 years. She said: “Many editors working in reality TV have little or no experience working in unions, so they tend to take these abuses for granted”
  • John from Brooklyn called in to say that he started out as a production assistant in reality TV. He's now a union electrician. He said "In the union world we're often working the same hours...The difference is that we are compensated for overtime." He added: “The safety considerations are far more prevalent in the union world.”
  • Joseph in Manhattan has been a producer for 15 years. He said: “I've worked, often times, in excess of 60, 70 hours a week. Sometimes more than that, nights, weekends holidays." He said that he has been directed each week to falsify his time sheet.  He added:  “I’m not giving my last name because I’d like to continue working”


Lowell Peterson and David Van Taylor

Comments [27]

Terry from NYC

In my experience, the culture that insists that the "The producer is always right" is damaging to the post workflow itself. I don't WANT overtime. I want the culture of ultimate authority being granted to producers to be questioned so that we can negotiate an efficient workflow so that I don't HAVE to work overtime. It's a win win for everyone.

I speak from experience. From POSITIVE experience. I know how much we can get done when producers trust us to do our jobs and there is a realistic screening schedule. In the three seasons i have been on a particular show, I have only had to stay late ONCE and that was on my first day of the second season to help another episode deliver because someone had left. That's it. Why? because they don't sit in a room from day one with editors micromanaging. BUT i have to make less money because it's a smaller company. So i'm choosing quality of life over money. And we shouldn't have to do that.

The only thing i can think of that that the Executives aren't aware that this is the dynamic that a good number of Story Producers and Series Producers avail themselves of. (It looks like sitting over our shoulders from day one micromanaging every step - which only serves to highlight their ignorance of how editing actually works) It needs to be questioned and Editors need to be respected more. A lot of times, they're expected not to even speak in screenings. So ultimately at a lot of companies they bare the brunt when things go wrong, but have little say to make things go right in the first place.

Jul. 04 2014 04:02 PM

I worked as a PA on the #1 show at the time, which was also a reality show... I was paid $100 a day. There was one day where I was allowed to leave at 11.5 hours (at midnight) and they acted like they were doing me a huge favor. A typical day was 15+ hours and I was told to write my hours in as a 12 hour day no matter what. I scrubbed toilets, lifted things that weighed more than I did (and hurt my back). One night after a 20 hour day I was so exhausted I fell at home and broke my foot. They told me not to come back to work as long as I had crutches or a cast on. Years later, working as a show producer I was asked to do something illegal (and that would ruin a family's life). They said if I didn't do it I would be fired. I opted to be fired and never worked in reality tv again.

Jul. 04 2014 10:24 AM
Jodi from NYC

It's not just reality TV that has these issues--it's the entire film and television production industry. At least writers, editors, and producers HAVE a guild and have a group that they can get benefits and protection from. Production Assistants have absolutely nothing to protect them, and they work the same 16-20 hour days with no benefits, no overtime, and no one that cares if they pass out on the job. I spent 1.5 years as a PA, sometimes paid, sometimes not even paid for my time. But if you want to be in the industry, it's accepted that this is what you do. The fact of the matter is that this is not only illegal, but it is also terribly unsafe. How can an industry that makes billions of dollars and spends millions on it's "stars" leaves the muscle that is doing the work with zero protections and completely in harms way? The lawsuits against film companies regarding unpaid interns only scratch the surface of the larger issues that plague the industry. NO ONE should work 16-20 hour days. NO ONE should be forced to be in unsafe working conditions just to make a living (and it's not even that much to live on!). The hypocrisy and absurdity in the industry drove me out, and every day I am grateful that I was able to find a job outside the industry that offered me a safe, sustainable future.

Jul. 03 2014 04:22 PM
Edit Girl from NY

I've worked in this industry for a long time…most of the time as as a perm-a-lancer at major networks. then at the revolving door of start up shows that never make it past 1-2 seasons. THe reality, shows, daytime talk shows and the like cook the books. They want you to work on a 10hr day, but labor laws kick OT in after 8hrs, so instead of basing your hourly rate on 10hrs, they pay you 8hr + 2 hr OT which reduces your hourly rate to crap. Most shows now aren't even paying OT anymore for Editors either. Hours are extremely long, and they expect you to work weekends. Yes, one could say no to these Jobs. Problem is there aren't many true staff jobs around that pay a fair wage with real benefits, that other businesses have. Some people have Families, and need the benefits, and all of you that think the major Networks pay great, your wrong, the hourly rate is very low compared to what you make on other shows, but they do pay OT…basically it becomes a no win situation. The Networks dangle possibility of becoming pseudo staff, where you would get benefits, only to be let go after you year out.

Jul. 03 2014 09:59 AM
preditor from NYC

Reality Show editors are also forced to be producers. So, generally we are doing the work of 2 people. I myself have worked a lot of free over time including a 35 hour day. Now, I work at a place that has overtime after 10 hours BUT, the schedules are insanely tight and we are told there is no money in the budget for overtime. Basically we are shammed into working free overtime. Because your afraid of losing your job for not meeting their insane deadlines.

Jul. 02 2014 10:00 PM
George from NYC, NY

yep, been working "permalance" for about seven years now. No health benefits, 1099 status. I've been an editor for "boutique" production companies. I have over 15 years experience overall, and I recently had the pleasure of working on a union production where the DPs, ACs, whomever, were clueless. I had to whisper in ears to make sure that the cameras were synced properly because I had to edit it all on my own later on into the wee hours of the morning. Each day I worked about 15-18 hours on average, with no overtime at all. BUT, I love what I do. I know the alternatives. As much complaining I could ever do, I'm still on set. I'm still working in front of a safe computer. There has been nothing worse than having to overhear the union workers complain and complain and yet the work they did, the footage I had to work with, was crap!

Jul. 02 2014 08:46 PM
Steve from BKLYN

Who Needs Sleep
Great documentary about long hours in the film biz.
Documentary 2006
directed by Haskell Wexler ASC
A documentary that highlights the deadly combination of sleep deprivation and long days of work. Focusing in particular in the film industry.
Unsettled by the preventable death of a coworker, filmmaker Haskell Wexler learns that sleep deprivation and long work hours are a deadly combination. Interweaving medical findings with personal accounts, his camera reveals how a 24/7 work culture affects all Americans.

Jul. 02 2014 06:44 PM
Dav from New York City

To the assistant Editor in New York who said:
"Assistant editors can make anywhere from 3x less to up to 5 times less than an editor and we do about 80% of THEIR work."

I don't know who you work for, but no assistant ever did 80% of my work as an editor. I'm sure you work very hard, but do not minimize all editors in your rant. Perhaps you work for a lazy jerk. Most assistants I've met I would not trust with the bulk of what I do.
You also said:
"Editors have it pretty easy, they may complain about the hours and some of them do work really long shifts, i'll give them that, but, they are also compensated far more than we are, there are some editors i know making between 4500 and 6000 a week."

What planet do you live on? Most editors do not make that kind of money.
Having gripes about the industry is one thing but do not make up crap and generalize about all editors.

Jul. 02 2014 06:39 PM
DT from New York

Left Right offered me the most abhorrent deal ever and I walked out of the interview.

2 people interviewed and tried to make it sound palatable..12 hour days as Lead AE (which I knew meant 14-16 hour days) PLUS "a Saturday here and there) at a WEEKLY rate (read: that Saturday and all those extra hours are FREE for them) of $950!!!

Biggest slap in the face ever. I was so appalled I actually laughed and walked right out.

I've worked so many free hours as an asssitant and as an editor I couldn't even begin to calculate. And most of these jobs either did the timecards for me or forced me to write 8-6 or 9-7 for all days even if i worked more than 10 hours.

Not to mention that in New York State labor laws state that after NINE hours you're into overtime, not 10.

Jul. 02 2014 05:21 PM
Assistant Editor from nyc

The pay divide is huge in reality tv too. Assistant editors will now get stuck being assistant editors for their whole lives. We wear too many hats and technology is changing so fast that we don't actually get to do any editing, which gives us less experience and makes it harder to move up. Assistant editors can make anywhere from 3x less to up to 5 times less than an editor and we do about 80% of THEIR work. I had an editor specifically tell me that they're in no hurry to help move up assistant editors and jr editors into fulltime editing positions because it will cause their rate to go down. Editors have it pretty easy, they may complain about the hours and some of them do work really long shifts, i'll give them that, but, they are also compensated far more than we are, there are some editors i know making between 4500 and 6000 bucks A WEEK. meanwhile, my pay as an assistant has actually gone down every year while my workload has increased tenfold. I can try and force more money but they'll just get some new kid out of college to do it for peanuts. The other sad thing is that the editors union doesnt really give a shit about reality tv shows that are union. I worked at a union company once, and when i complained to the union about the work conditions they said "that place is like that, you're better off finding a new place to work" which doesnt give me much confidence in the union frankly

Jul. 02 2014 03:22 PM
Anna from NYC

Thanks for having me on the show! The NY Editors Collective is a 1000+ group of editors, mostly working in reality TV. Find out more about what we're doing to improve working conditions in nonfiction TV at

Jul. 02 2014 03:01 PM

Can't tell you how many times I've been a victim/proponent of wage theft. Signing a document at the start of a project that clearly states you're working substantially less than you actually are? Incredible how long we've put up with this, thinking it's just "part of the process." Getting sick of putting my OT earnings into an executive's tip jar. Any of these companies would fail an Attorney General's audit.

Jul. 02 2014 02:52 PM
Geoff from Manhattan.

I've been in post production for 14 years and the expectation to "stay until the job is done" is getting out of control. That's the part of this that gets everyone into trouble. It's the expectation from production companies to stay until all hours to get it done. Because the deadline's tomorrow...and, oh yeah, the rate is a flat that mean's no OT. Forget the fact that it was an impossible schedule to begin with. And if you don't want to do it...there's a line of people who are willing.

We, as a collective, just have to say no.

Jul. 02 2014 02:49 PM
The Truth from Becky

That base salary has to be benefits, no overtime pay, 12, 14, 16 hour days?

Jul. 02 2014 01:57 PM
Anonymous from Brookyln

These issues are also a major struggle in the locations department of fiction television and film.

Jul. 02 2014 01:57 PM

Even if the show is union, there are many workers on the production team that are not covered by a specific union (assistants, coordinators, etc.) and they are routinely exploited.

Jul. 02 2014 01:54 PM
MAX from nyc

everyone at my job is too scared to call!

Jul. 02 2014 01:53 PM
Anonymous from Chicago

It's slavery.

Jul. 02 2014 01:50 PM
The Truth from Becky

What is the salary range? Production Assistant to Producer?

Jul. 02 2014 01:49 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Well why shouldn't the television industry follow the rest of American labor practices, into the toilet. This isn't the only industry doing this, of course.

MG's right--we have no business complaining about ex-U.S. labor practices when ours are becoming third-world below the C-suite?

dboy - As usual, hahahahahah!

Jul. 02 2014 01:46 PM
Erica from Levittown, NY

As a Union stagehand, IATSE, I have been well informed about the Union's struggles trying to organize "Reality TV". It is IMPERATIVE that theses workers get under a collective bargaining agreement immediately, and that these shows payb all their employees a decent, living wage, with adherence to all Federal laws pertaining to overtime.

Jul. 02 2014 01:44 PM

Production assistants and lower paid production workers (hired on back-to-back short-term contracts) at Sesame Street are routinely told they don't qualify for federal overtime (even though they are not independent contractors),and are denied health benefits and compensation.

Jul. 02 2014 01:42 PM
MG from NYC

No benefits!! Forced to work while the suits are off enjoying the 4th of July!

What has happened to this country??? We get up on our high horses about labor practices in Bangladesh or China, but we tolerate this?

Rise up people!

Jul. 02 2014 01:41 PM
a from NYC

i'm in a similar field, the commercial photography industry, and we have the same issue. i worked on a job last week and it is standard that a day is 10 hours. i worked 14 and didn't get any over time. this is far too common and often time photo assistants are running around for the entire time and barely have time to eat. we also often don't get paid for 3-6 months which is standard...sometimes it's even longer. another issue is that a lot of photo assistants are foreign and here on visas so they definitely aren't going to complain.

Jul. 02 2014 01:41 PM

…I got an idea!

How 'bout just NOT producing this dreck!?!?

Jul. 02 2014 01:37 PM
Anonymous from NYC

In reality TV production, I have worked at so many places that expected me to work full holidays(no overtime) and 10 hours was a MINIMUM. Of course, network and production execs had the days off. So sad that this is somewhat common place considering how much money there is in the industry and how exploited it's workers are.

Jul. 02 2014 01:09 PM

I am currently working at Left Right Productions. Producers of Mob Wives, Hawaii Life, Small Town Security and they produced the TV version of THIS AMERICAN LIFE. I was just told yesterday that there is a new policy that if we don't work on July 4th we will not get paid. And, by the way, the office is closed. Shame on them!

Jul. 02 2014 11:52 AM

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