NYC Council Probes ‘Sweatshop Conditions’ for Freelance Reality TV Workers

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The hearing, “The Real Reality of Reality TV,” focuses on a lack of job security, long days, no OT pay and no benefits

The New York City Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee held a public hearing to probe “sweatshop conditions” for freelance workers in the reality TV industry on Wednesday.

The hearing, “The Real Reality of Reality TV,” focused on the “long hours, stolen wages, and sometimes dangerous conditions faced by workers in the reality TV industry,” according to a press release. The council stated that employees of scripted TV series have access to jobs with union protections and benefits, while the mostly freelance workers in reality TV have no job security and often work up to 16-hour days with no overtime pay or benefits.

“It is important to the City of New York to encourage the growth of well-paying, stable jobs in the creative economy,” said Councilman I. Daneek Miller (Queens, Pictured above), who chairs the council. “Non-fiction television, an expanding and lucrative industry, is important to this growth. The jobs it provides should meet certain standards that our community values, not the least of which is adherence to the law.”

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The hearing was based on a Writers Guild of America East report, “The Real Reality: Working Conditions in the Non-fiction and Reality Television Industry in NYC.” The report states that the city’s reality TV sector grew 20 percent over the last 10 years and accounts for more than 12,000 jobs.

It added that while reality production companies like ITV Studios are profitable and expanding (ITV recently acquired New York production company Leftfield for $360 million), the writers and producers who create their shows continue to struggle. Workers in the reality TV industry and labor groups including the WGAE, NYC Central Labor Council, National Employment Law Project, and the Actors Fund testified before today’s committee.

“What these big companies have figured out is how to squeeze the most out of their employees,” said David Von Taylor, nonfiction television producer. “These companies contract to make programs on ever-shorter schedules, which means the producers, associate producers, editors and crews have to work ever-longer hours. These companies don’t pay overtime for these longer hours. The current business model of non-fiction television — which depends on squeezing freelancers beyond the limits of the law and their endurance — is not sustainable for me, for my colleagues, or for New York City.”

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“It’s not that this television industry, the reality TV part, is weak and impoverished,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director, Writers Guild of America East. “To the contrary, more and more hours of cable and network TV are filled with non-fiction ‘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. Is the non-fiction television industry good for the New York economy? The answer really depends on whether the production companies — and the networks that buy the shows these companies produce — are willing to share some of the wealth with the men and women who create the shows.  We know from experience that paying employees adequate compensation, providing reasonable benefits and enabling people to build sustainable careers is actually good for business.”

“Non-fiction TV companies generate a great deal of revenue,” said Vincent Alvarez, president, NYC Central Labor Council. “Investors are pouring millions of dollars into reality TV companies, and networks are bringing in enormous revenues from cable companies and advertisers. The time has come for this wealth to be shared by the men and women who make it all possible by crafting the shows enjoyed by audiences around the world.”

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“Wage theft in New York is not incidental or rare, committed by a few rogue employers,” added Sarah Leberstein, staff attorney, National Employment Law Project. “And increasingly, it plagues what are supposed to be middle-income, growth professions. Film and television production now employs a workforce of 130,000 in New York, having added 30,000 jobs in the past decade.  But the industry’s potential to provide promising careers and its ability to attract and retain talented young professionals is undermined by these abuses.”

The WGA East report recommended that the City Council, production companies, networks and employees craft a Code of Conduct that requires “reasonable” budgets and work schedules, adequate staffing levels, respect for employees’ right to bargain collectively, basic benefits like paid time off and health coverage, and guarantees all wage and hour laws are honored.