For two decades, E! Entertainment Television has dished up tales of Hollywood glamour and celebrity gossip to millions of viewers.
Beyond the red carpet, however, E! has struggled with its own image problem as employees complained vigorously to their guild about working under grueling conditions without health insurance benefits.
Now E! is taking a big step to resolve the long-standing complaints from the people who produce such shows as "E! True Hollywood Story" and "The Daily 10."
After meetings with representatives of the Producers Guild of America, the channel recently decided to provide health insurance benefits to freelance producers who work for at least 200 consecutive days. It also decided to make more than 100 associate producers, who previously were classified as exempt, eligible for overtime pay, retroactive for the last three years.
Such concessions are highly unusual in an industry known for its shoestring budgets. They could cost the channel, which along with Style Network and G4 is owned by cable giant Comcast Corp., several million dollars. They also mark the first time the Producers Guild of America, a trade association that originated in 1950, has taken on such an active role to improve working conditions of producers.
The guild, which has more than 3,600 members, hopes the development will shed light on the little-known plight of producers, associate producers and production coordinators who work on low-cost cable shows, where programmers have been squeezed by competition and reduced licensing fees. To cut costs, many cable channels have replaced permanent staffs with freelance employees who aren't eligible for health insurance and other benefits.
"We've been quite distressed over the last couple of years as reports come in from all over town about the conditions of our members who work on nonfiction television programs, not just those at E!" said Producers Guild President Marshall Herskovitz, whose credits include the film "Blood Diamond" and the ABC-TV series "thirtysomething."
"Because we're a trade association, we can only attempt to influence the powers that be, but that doesn't mean we're any less concerned about the welfare of our members."
In an open letter to the guild's membership this week, Vance Van Petten, the group's executive director, praised E! and Comcast Entertainment Group President Ted Harbert.
"E! has again dealt in good faith with its employees, and chosen to recognize the true value of their labor," he wrote.
Harbert said the guild's efforts accelerated changes already underway at the channel.
"Nobody was breaking down the door with axes," he said. "We're doing this because it's the right thing to do. . . . I succeed if my employees succeed, so we just want to make this a great place to work."
He said he didn't know how much the measures would cost but added: "This definitely comes off the bottom line."
The guild has received dozens of complaints over the last several years from producers and associate producers working at E! and Style Network. Most said they had to work 12- to-16-hour days with virtually no breaks and without overtime pay.
One former E! producer said she quit in the summer because conditions were intolerable.
"It's a boot camp and you're given an opportunity to learn everything," said the producer, who asked not to be identified to protect her career. "I traveled all over the country, but in the end, some of us felt like it was an abusive relationship."
The lack of health insurance was even more of an issue for some employees.
"People would come to us with these horror stories. They were in tears," Van Petten said. "They were afraid of getting sick. They'd work so hard and then collapse and end up in the hospital . . . and have to pay for it themselves."
A former associate producer who asked not be named said she earned $750 a week working as many as 60 hours a week without benefits.
"You get paid no money and you don't have insurance," said the former employee, who has left the entertainment industry. "It was a huge concern to me."
Most of the complaints occurred during the tumultuous tenure of former Chief Executive Mindy Herman, who was ousted in 2004 amid allegations that she abused her power and alienated celebrities. Herman was replaced by Harbert, former chairman and president of ABC Entertainment.
The guild offers health insurance benefits to producers, but they must work for a major studio or company that has an agreement with the industry's health plans. E! and most cable channels do not have such agreements.
In response to the complaints, the guild considered filing a class-action lawsuit against E! but ultimately settled on a more conciliatory approach, reflecting the unique role of producers as employees and supervisors. "We decided to give them an opportunity to clean up the problem," Van Petten said.
A guild committee spent the last year documenting 20 cases, then presented the findings to E! executives. Herskovitz lent his authority and his leverage to the cause, using his personal friendship with Harbert, with whom he had worked at ABC.
"His reaction to this was immediate, honest and forthright," Herskovitz said.