Thrown Under the Bus: Working Conditions in Reality Television

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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

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”