Television programs that depict real-world conflict can be tremendously dangerous. Last month, Bryce Dion, a member of the on-location production team for the reality TV show “Cops,” was fatally shot while filming a police shootout. Last year, filmmaker John Driftmier perished in a plane crash shooting for “Dangerous Flights.” Special Forces veteran Michael Donatelli went down in a helicopter while working on an unnamed “military reality” show for Discovery (the network that cancelled another program about wing-suit jumping off Mount Everest after an avalanche there killed 13 people). And 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed when an officer filming ITV”s “The First 48” for A&E shot her in the head. And those are only the recent fatalities; injuries are manifold—and go uncounted.
Yet the people who work on, and appear in, reality TV programs receive no formal, systematic, industry-wide labor protections. In fact, they’re lucky if they receive any protections at all—which explains not only the scale and frequency of carnage, but also the horrible (but less attention-grabbing) working conditions. Tens of thousands of people make their living with nonfiction/reality programs, which comprise a large and growing share of what is broadcast on cable and network TV. These dedicated men and women toil long hours to craft compelling stories under unrealistic deadlines and hyper-tight budgets. If the networks want to keep their collaborators safe, reduce the embarrassments from cancelled shows, and prevent lawsuits that hold them liable for accidents like the ones described above, things have to change. It’s time for reality TV to stop treating people like chattel.
The Writers Guild of America, East represents thousands of writers and writer-producers who create dramas and comedies for network and cable television, feature films and documentaries, broadcast news programs, and online shows. Last year, we surveyed more than one thousand writer-producers working in reality TV about their conditions, including those who don’t belong to the guild, and the results were disturbing. More than 70 percent work more than 40 hours every week, and 85 percent have never received overtime. In some cases they work 14-18 hours per day. (Field producers on ITV’s “The First 48” remain on duty seven days a week, for months at a time.) Most crew get no health or pension benefits, and no union representation. Often, they can’t afford to see a doctor to address injuries they’ve acquired on the job. Here are some testimonies from the survey:
When I’ve worked freelance, I often work 70-80 hours a week during active production – and when you’re freelance it’s almost always active production. There is little to no regard for people’s well being and we’re often put into difficult positions where it’s either our safety and well being or our job. I’ve had to go against my bosses when there are PA’s who have worked since 5am and are about to get in a car at midnight and drive 3 hours through a thunderstorm because there’s no budget for their overnight.
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I recently worked on a home renovation show where I was working 18 hours in the field, an additional 3 at home at the end of my shift and working conditions were poor. There were no safety precautions taken and we were working in homes that were completely dilapidated. People went through the floor regularly, things were constantly falling and if you complained you were fired. Plus everyone was barely sleeping which added to the number of accidents that were occurring. It is not acceptable to be expected to work all hours of the day and night 7 days a week and not be compensated or allowed to do anything about it.
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My worst experience was . . . where we worked for around 18 hours without a break and with inadequate food and hydration in 100 degree heat. I began throwing up after a few days of this and eventually demanded to be taken to the emergency room where I was given 3 litres of IV fluids.
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I’ve worked on shoots in very dangerous situations (prison settings, massive crowds, mountaineering) with no security or emergency contingency plans or staff in place.
Gawker, too, recently published a series of horror stories from reality TV workers who describe being deceived about working conditions (which turned out to be unsafe), ignored when they complained, and unable to do anything about it because they were trapped in the Amazonian jungle.
These conditions are simply unacceptable. They are utterly unlike anything in “scripted” television and film, where the WGAE has represented writers and writer-producers for many years. Although reality shows involve a huge amount of writing—from structuring narratives to penning voice-overs to actual dialogue—networks and production companies do not like to admit there is “writing” on nonfiction shows, so they have been unwilling to apply the main Writers Guild agreement that protects people in the non-reality “scripted” part of the industry.
On the non-reality side of the business, people earn health and pension benefits. They are guaranteed substantial minimum compensation levels, often including additional “residual” payments when their shows and films are rebroadcast or sold as DVDs or streamed online. Perhaps most importantly, they have a voice on the job, a union to listen to their concerns and advocate on their behalf. If anything about the work environment would put their health or safety at risk, the collective strength of the entire Guild and its membership can be brought to bear.
Today, an industry-wide campaign is working to make reality TV workplace conditions more like those in the rest of the business. The WGAE has collected the creative and professional concerns of writer-producers, described their extremely difficult working conditions to government officials and the public, won a number of National Labor Relations Board elections, and negotiated collective bargaining agreements that provide company-paid health benefits, paid time off, minimum pay scales, and other important protections. We hope elected officials, network executives, and production companies will support these efforts so people who love to make TV programs can build sustainable careers without putting their safety and their health in jeopardy.