City Council to hear report on conditions for reality-show writers

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Nicole Levy

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The business of reality television has been profitable for cable networks and production companies in New York City, but employees aren't reaping the benefits, according to a report by the Writers Guild of America East out today.

The Guild report, “The Real Reality: Working Conditions in the Nonfiction and Reality Television Industry in NYC,” encouraged employees in the nonfiction TV industry to unionize, arguing that “collective bargaining empowers the employees themselves to come together to figure out what works best.” The labor union has been organizing writers in nonfiction television since 2009 and currently represents writers working at three nonfiction television production companies.

According to the report, 30 percent of the top cable networks—including TLC and Discovery—rely heavily on reality shows for their programming. Reality shows yield profit because their lower labor cost make them cheaper to produce.

The report pointed to a recent escalation in the acquisition of U.S. reality production companies by British media companies like ITV, and mergers among U.S. production companies as evidence that production company executives and investors are betting that profits in reality TV will only continue to rise.

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“Or to put it another way,” the report continued, “there is absolutely no economic reason for reality TV production companies to shortchange their writer-producers.”

The Guild contended that writers, or producers as their employers call them, account for about 15 percent of a typical reality TV show staff because reality shows aren't as unscripted as the public thinks: writers are responsible for narrative arcs, interview questions, voice-overs, and sometimes even dialogue.

The approximately 2,200 people working as writers and producers in the reality sector in New York City face difficult working conditions, the report said. They rarely work eight-hour days or 5-day weeks. According to a 2013 Guild survey, eighty-eight percent of producers and associate producers said they were “never” paid overtime. Young employees said they couldn't see themselves raising a family while working short-term jobs with no paid off-time and periods of unemployment in between. Older employees bemoaned the lack of retirement benefits and employer-paid health insurance. Workers of all ages reported struggling to maintain their current pay levels.

Calling on cable networks and production companies to agree to standards in the nonfiction TV industry that would give employees the rights of unionized workers, the report recommended such measures as limiting hours worked, introducing company-paid health coverage and paid time-off, and guaranteeing the right to unionize.

Later this morning, the Guild will present its findings and suggestions at a hearing before the New York City Council's Committee on Civil Service and Labor. The hearing, organized by councilman I. Daneek Miller, can be viewed here: http://on.nyc.gov/1a6iTEl