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Scribes’ lawsuit a reality

Writers sue over working conditions on skeins

This article was update at 7:19 p.m.

Asserting they were required to work 84-hour work weeks without overtime pay, a dozen reality TV writers have sued four networks and four production companies for alleged violations of California labor laws on overtime, wages and meal periods.

“I just got to the point where I could not do it any more,” said plaintiff Todd Sharp, who spent seven weeks as a producer on “The Bachelor” between February and April. “At some point, this has to stop. Somebody’s making a lot of money on reality TV, and clearly, it’s not us.”

Suit, which the writers filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court with the assistance of the Writers Guild of America West, names ABC, CBS, TBS, the WB, Next Entertainment, Telepictures Prods., AND Syndicated Prods. And Dawn Syndicated Prods.

The specific programs covered by the suit are from reality TV kingpin Mike Fleiss’ stable and include “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Are You Hot?,” “Trista and Ryan’s Wedding,” “The Two-Timer,” “The Will,” “The Starlet” and “The Real Gilligan’s Island.”

Plaintiffs are seeking class-action status for the suit, which could cover as many as 200 writers who worked on the shows.

Reps for CBS, the WB and Telepictures declined comment. A spokesman for ABC said, “While we do not comment on pending litigation, we believe ABC is in compliance with all applicable laws.”

WGA West exec director John McLean said the nets and companies have stonewalled the guild on the issue.

Leaders of the guild — who have been attempting with limited success to organize the reality sector — declared Thursday that the allegedly illegal conditions are pervasive and by design. And they warned that more lawsuits are coming.

“These violations of California law are no mere accounting errors,” WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr. said. “They are deliberately designed to deny these writers the basic rights and legal protections of fair wages, overtime and a meal break.”

Falsified time cards?

In the suit, the writers allege that the shows established a flat rate for an 84-hour work week; regardless of the numbers of hours worked, they received only the flat rate even when the law requires that they receive time-and-a-half after 40 hours and double-time after 80. The scribes also allege they were required to falsify their time cards — either by writing “worked” across the cards or entering predetermined start and end times.

“It didn’t matter how much you worked — you always got paid the same,” said Sharp, who noted that he sometime worked until 4 a.m. on “The Bachelor.”

Suit includes documents showing that an assistant story editor received an $800 weekly salary for “The Bachelorette II” for an 84-hour work week. The action asserts that, to be in compliance with California’s requirements on overtime pay, such an employee would have to paid $2,160.

Current WGA minimum weekly rate for a writer on a 13-week primetime series is $3,477. Guild said it has received nearly 1,000 signed authorization cards from writers, producers and editors who work in reality and want to be repped by the WGA West.

Increasing disenchantment

Sharp said he believes that in the early days of reality TV, writers were willing to put up with the long hours in exchange for working on interesting shows and establishing oneself in show business. But in recent years, he added, writers have grown disenchanted with the working conditions, combined with producers demanding longer hours and shorter production seasons.

“They’ve figured out how to get more work out of us in less time,” Sharp said.

Besides Sharp, other plaintiffs are Troy Devolld, Sarah Levine, Michael Gara, Eduardo Penna, Emily Sinclair, J. Ryan Stradal, Kevin Thomas, Thomas Hietter, Nicole Hedlund, Christian Huber and Brian Gibson.

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, wasn’t available for comment Thursday. He said two weeks ago that the WGA’s organizing efforts had violated an understanding between the WGA and the companies that discussions about organizing would take place on a production-by-production basis (Daily Variety, June 21).

Creative titles

Producers have 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 won’t label those who perform those tasks as writers, opting to use terms like “story producers,” “story editors” and “segment producers.”

The WGA, Directors Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild all agreed in their most recent basic contracts with the AMPTP 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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