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Time to Vote Wage Theft Off the Island

Photo by Out.of.Focus/Flickr

Here’s a reality the television networks aren’t likely to green-light for a prime-time slot like “Pawn Stars,” “Doomsday Preppers,” “The First 48,” or any other of the ubiquitous reality shows that fill up so much of today’s TV schedule. The writers and producers of many of these shows are plagued by long hours, misclassification and stolen wages that, according to a new survey, cost some $40 million a year industry-wide or about $30,000 a worker.     

Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), which conducted the survey, says:

These findings demystify the perception that everyone involved in reality TV is reaping the benefits of the genre’s popularity. While reality TV is no doubt lucrative for networks and production companies, the men and women doing the actual work are finding they can barely cling to the middle class.

Remember, so-called reality TV shows don’t just happen by setting up a camera in a pawnshop or storage locker and recording whatever happens in “real life.” Non-fiction television is formatted, written and plotted—twists and all—similar to police procedurals or sitcoms.

While the production companies and cable networks are reaping profits from these shows, real wages are falling and working conditions are worsening, according to the WGAE survey of non-fiction TV writers and producers. For example:

  • 84% of writers/producers work more than 40 hours a week, nearly every week.
  • 60% work more than eight hours a day, every day.
  • 85% never receive overtime pay.
  • More than 50% of respondents to the survey said they’ve had to work 80 hours or more in a week.

Producer David Van Taylor said:

I’ve known people to work upward of 100 hours in a given week while shooting and then had to immediately start writing the script upon return, with no down time, to have the script ready in time for the editor. There's no compensation for that additional work, and it's especially hard when you have a family.

According to WGAE, a comparison of compensation per episode for a writer/producer on the scripted cable show "Royal Pains” and one on the non-fiction “Pawn Stars” finds that the workers on the scripted show earn a minimum of $6,712 an episode while a writer/producer on "Pawn Stars" earns $2,136. Scripted shows regularly include health and retirement benefits.

The union called for several actions, including enforcement of wage and hour laws, more reasonable budgets and production schedules, and said:

Employers must be willing to enter into collective bargaining. The WGAE remains committed to its industry-wide organizing campaign and can help raise standards to the point that people can make a living doing the work they care about.

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