Writers Guild of America Blasts Reality Shows Over Unpaid Overtime

Pawn Stars WGA Lost Income
Courtesy of WGN

Guild asserts $40 million in lost wages annually

Writers and producers on TV’s reality shows are losing $40 million annually in unpaid overtime, according to a survey of members of the Writers Guild of America East.

The results, announced Monday in a news conference at WGA East headquarters in New York, signal heightened efforts by the WGA East to organize the sector. The union singled out History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” A&E’s “The First 48,” Discovery’s “Fatal Encounters” and National Geograhic’s “Doomsday Preppers” as violators.

The union called for government officials to investigate, adding, “Companies that choose to break the law and mistreat their employees should not gain unfair competitive advantage.”

“These findings demystify the perception that everyone involved in reality TV is reaping the benefits of the genre’s popularity,” said Lowell Peterson, WGA East exec director. “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.”

The WGA East event included an appearance by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D. N.Y.

“The production of nonfiction shows for cable television is an important part of New York’s economy,” he said. “The experience of the workers at those productions mirrors that of many other New Yorkers who work as freelancers, trying to make a living doing work they find meaningful, but putting in long hours, typically without health and retirement benefits or general job security. I call upon the companies that employ these men and women to obey all wage and hour laws and I support efforts to enforce those laws.”

Nadler said at the news conference that the state Dept. of Labor should intervene.

The survey was conducted in July and August. It was sent to 1,266 nonfiction TV writers and producers in the industry and generated a 25% response rate with 315 completing the survey.

The survey found that 84% of respondents work more than 40 hours a week almost every week; 60% work more than 8 hours a day, every day; 85% never receive overtime pay; and over 50% said that they have had to work 80 hours or more in a week.

The survey also showed 11% said their timecards always reflected the hours they worked while 49% said their timecards “never” accurately reflected hours worked.

As a result, the average reality writer and producer is losing $30,000 yearly to “stolen” overtime and improper classification, the guild asserted.

“The networks and production companies must obey the law,” said WGA East president Michael Winship. “It is imperative that the industry and the public sector work together to institute policies and enforce regulations.”

Letitia James, Public Advocate-elect for New York City, said at the news conference that the office of the state Atty. General should investigate.

“The networks and production companies that make millions of dollars in profits from reality television programs must obey the wage and hour laws, and they must respect their employees’ right to work together to build sustainable careers,” she said. “People have the right to ask for paid time off, for health benefits, for reasonable hours and pay.”

The WGA East has been trying to organize non-fiction production companies for years. It  reached three-year master contract agreements in July 2012 with Lion Television and Optomen Prods but saw a setback earlier this year at Atlas Media, where the employees voted to de-certify the guild as its bargaining rep.

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