WGA gets real litigious

Nonfiction scribes go to battle with nets, producers

Reality show writers have launched round two of their battle against nets and producers, as 10 writers sued Fox Broadcasting and Rocket Science Laboratories alleging violations of labor laws on overtime, wages and meal periods.

“I don’t mind working hard,” said plaintiff Zachary Isenberg, who put in 80-hour weeks without overtime pay as a story assistant on “Renovate My Family.” “I do mind being taken advantage of.”

Suit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, comes six weeks after a dozen reality TV writers sued four networks and four production companies run by Mike Fleiss on similar grounds. Both actions were filed with the assistance of the WGA West as part of its campaign to organize the reality sector; both suits are seeking class-action status.

Guild unveiled the action at a news conference Wednesday at its Hollywood HQ — often using terms like “sweatshop” — with a focus on writers being required to falsify time cards and work unlimited hours. Along with plaintiffs and guild leaders, about three dozen reality show writers attended to show their support.

Isenberg said he was required to fill out three weeks of time cards on his first day of employment on “Renovate.” He estimated that the lead story producers on the skein were working 120 hours per week.

“It’s time for Fox and the other major broadcasting companies to step out in the light of day and end these injustices,” said WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr. “In this case, Fox was in direct creative control of these series and used Rocket Science Laboratories Inc. as a vehicle for the systemic violations of wage and hour law.”

Petrie stressed that Fox was involved in every aspect of the shows via budgets, supervising the workplace and exercising ultimate control over content.

“We’ve heard stories of people breaking down from the strain, of men and women working from nine in the morning until after midnight with no meal breaks, of location shoots where eight people were required to work in hot trailers meant for four,” Petrie added.

Fox spokesman Joe Earley said in response that Fox does not comment on litigation as a matter of corporate policy. A spokeswoman for Rocket Science also declined comment.

Producers have long contended their programs should not be under WGA jurisdiction because the shows aren’t scripted. Though reality fare sometimes involves 100-page episode outlines, producers refuse to label those who perform those tasks as writers.

New suit noted that it covers employees with titles including story assistant, field producer, story producer, story editor, format producer and editor. Action alleges violations over the past three years on programs including “Trading Spouses,” “Joe Millionaire,” “The Next Joe Millionaire,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” “Renovate My Family,” “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay” and “Married in America.”

Plaintiff Lowell Goodman, a story producer on “Trading Spouses,” said at the news conference that there were standing instructions to fill out time cards according to a template provided by the production company.

Plaintiff Victoria Dew, a story producer on “Renovate My Family,” said that the shorter days on the series were 15 hours long. “You were a slacker if you left before midnight,” she added.

Dew said shifts in the production schedule of “Renovate” — with the second show becoming the premiere and the first show being expanded from one hour to two hours — forced the story producers and editors to work shifts that ran from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. during a two-week period.

Asked if he was concerned about retaliation for participating in the suit, Isenberg admitted that he is.

“I am very nervous that this could end my career,” he responded. “But there comes a point where you have to stand up for yourself. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”

Leaders of the guild admitted Wednesday that they have had no recent success in organizing reality shows. And they warned that more lawsuits are coming.

In the suit, the writers allege that the shows established a flat weekly rate and that they were required to falsify time cards — either by signing blank cards or entering pre-determined times — when they worked “far in excess” of a 40-hour week without overtime pay.

Suit also alleges failure to provide meal periods, itemized wage statements and accurate payroll records.

Other plaintiffs included Daniel A. Shriver, Jubba Seyyid, Andrea Archer, Valerie C. Ahern, Joseph L. Weiss and Alastair Surprise.

Shriver, a story producer on “Trading Spouses,” told Daily Variety that although the conditions detailed in the suit generally prevail in the industry, a few producers, such as Original Prods., do not mistreat writers.

WGA minimum weekly rate for a writer on a 13-week primetime series is $3,477. One of the pay stubs filed with the suit showed a story producer receiving gross weekly pay of $1,800 for an 84-hour work week with net pay of $1,303.

Guild said it has received nearly 1,000 signed authorization cards from writers, producers and editors who work on 70 reality shows and want to be repped by the WGA West.

The WGA, Directors Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild failed in their most recent contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to expand their basic contracts to include reality shows.

Instead, each guild agreed to free reuse of dramatic series for two months and to a one-year deferral of below-the-line wage hikes in new one-hour series. By making the concessions, the guilds were seeking to help traditional shows succeed because of the incursion by reality shows.

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