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Study cites reality TV pay issues

Producers violate state law by denying writers overtime and meal breaks, a survey alleges.

November 24, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Producers of reality TV shows are flouting California's wage and hour laws by improperly denying overtime payments and meal breaks to most of the writers who work on their shows, according to a survey commissioned by the Writers Guild of America, West.

The survey, conducted by Goodwin Simon Victoria Research, states that reality production companies and payroll service firms improperly classify writers who work in the industry as exempt from state and federal overtime pay requirements, depriving them of more than $30 million a year in lost wages.

Among 303 writers who responded to the online survey, 91% said they received no overtime pay and 59% said their time cards didn't reflect the hours they worked.

On average, writers worked 16 hours of unpaid overtime a week. That's an average loss in annual wages of $38,400, according to the report to be released next week by Goodwin Simon Victoria, a Culver City firm that conducts research for a number of unions and other organizations.

"It's clear to us that the wage and hour violations are massive," said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West.

The survey is the latest effort by the Writers Guild of America to raise pressure on producers and networks involved in the highly profitable reality TV sector to extend union pay and benefits to more than 1,000 writers who work in so-called unscripted television.

The status of writers on reality shows is a source of friction in contract talks with the major studios, which are scheduled to resume Monday. Writers have been on strike for nearly three weeks. The main issue is compensation for work shown online, but the dispute over reality TV remains a major sticking point.

During the 2006-07 television season, nine of the top 15 highest-rated hours of prime-time programming were reality or game shows, the report states, including such hits as "Survivor" and "Dancing With the Stars."

The union maintains that writers are integral to the success of the shows, and that they deserve the benefits and pay enjoyed by their peers who write for dramas and comedies. Although reality shows are promoted as capturing unrehearsed and unscripted situations from life, in fact writers are routinely hired to punch up dialogue and tension for dramatic effect.

Responding to the findings, Assemblyman Sandre R. Swanson (D-Oakland) said he sent a letter Tuesday to State Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet, calling on her to investigate. The statistics "appear to reflect a troubling disregard for the labor laws of this state," he wrote after the guild sent him results of the survey.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment on the report. Previously, studios have argued that the guild lacked jurisdiction to represent writers in reality TV and should pursue the matter through the National Labor Relations Board, not at the bargaining table.

Reality TV producers have previously dismissed guild claims that they are running afoul of labor laws and have accused the guild of overreaching by trying to represent workers who in their view are story producers and editors, not writers.

State law requires that employees be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week or more than eight hours during any workday.

The law exempts salaried employees who are also executives, professionals and artists who exercise "discretion and independent judgment" over their work. Yet the survey found that 95% of respondents did not meet those exemptions.

The union hopes the study's findings will lend ammunition to its campaign to organize workers in the reality genre. In 2005, the guild backed two high-profile lawsuits in Los Angeles County Superior Court against producers of reality shows, saying they violated state labor laws. Those cases are pending.

It has also helped writers file more than 20 complaints against various reality TV producers with the state's Office of the Labor Commissioner. In one recent case an agency hearing officer ordered Nash Entertainment and a payroll service company to pay a former story producer who worked on TBS' "Outback Jack" $35,000 in overtime.

Guild officials praised the decision as a significant victory that could expose the industry to broad liability, a claim dismissed by company attorneys who are appealing in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

"It's not precedent-setting at all," said Nash's attorney, Alan Brunswick.


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