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Are NYC-based Reality TV Shows Hotbeds of Wage Theft?

Recently, the New York City Council held its first public hearing on the emerging issue of wage theft and exploitive working conditions on the sets of NYC-based reality television shows. The hearing was prompted by a recent report released by the Writer's Guild of America's New York subsidiary, WGA East, entitled "The Real Reality: Working Conditions in the Nonfiction and Reality Television Industry in NYC."

The public hearing and report detail an industry rife with at least the strong potential for exploitation of workers: 16-hour workdays, weeks or months on end with no days off, and of course no overtime pay. As Deadline reports:

So-called "wage theft" - the non-payment of overtime through the misclassification of employees as freelancers - dominated much of the testimony. Sarah Leberstein, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said that this widespread practice "illegally depresses labor costs and cheats workers out of the wages they've earned."

The New York Daily News interviewed one associate producer of a popular NYC show, who sheds some light on exactly what the job entails:

Liz Morrison said she put in 15-hour days without overtime pay as an associate producer on the National Geographic show "Humanly Impossible."

Morrison, 29, of Brooklyn, booked guests, planned out show segments, created call sheets and schedules and made sure the entire crew got lunch.

Since the show debunked myths about bizarre things people can do with their bodies that defy the laws of nature, she also helped set up and conduct faux science experiments.

Morrison, who worked for Atlas Media Corp. in 2010, received no health benefits, paid sick time or paid vacation time and earned $850 to $1,000 for her 75-hour weeks, she said.

Why reality television? In part, these types of labor issues are unique to reality TV producers and writers (it's true - reality shows employ writers) because they don't have the union protections of many of their non-reality peers. Additionally, as Deadline points out, reality television has become a way for networks and production companies to generate huge revenues - the kind previously associated with popular dramatic or comedic programs - at greatly reduced costs. After all, reality television "actors" generally don't command the salaries of their more established peers, and there are no set, costume, or special effects budget costs to contend with.

The City Council is being urged to craft a "Code of Conduct" for production companies, many of whom receive sizable tax subsidies for filming in New York, that would provide for mandated benefits for employees including overtime pay, the right to bargain collectively, and delineated work schedules. We'll report back on any efforts the Council undertakes. While the hearing didn't single out any programs or companies, a few of the more popular NYC-based reality shows are The Apprentice, The Real Housewives of New York City, NY Ink, and Say Yes to the Dress. (Check out this Newsday piece on why the five boroughs are such a hit for reality producers.)

Previously on the Serrins Fisher blog, we highlighted the problems of wage theft, and how these issues are dealt with under the laws of New York State.

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