THE BLOG

Reality TV Workers Have Little to Be Thankful for

11/27/2013 07:30 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

For better or worse, television has become as much a part of Thanksgiving in the United States as turkey-induced food comas and survival training for Black Friday. Coverage of the Macy's parade, Detroit Lions football and the National Dog Show vie with tipsy uncles for entertainment. I, for one, will be spending "Thanksgiving with 'The Godfather'" on AMC, for what says bounty and Yankee resourcefulness more than the Corleone olive oil business?

But, as we count our blessings this year (and Barzini, I definitely don't mean you), there's a very good reason to think about some of the people behind the screen. When it comes to reality television, the experience of men and women working in that genre defies the popular perception of show biz wealth and glamor. Writers and producers on TV's most popular reality shows, including "Pawn Stars," "The First 48," "Fatal Encounters" and "Doomsday Preppers," are plagued by long hours and stolen wages, costing them $40 million annually, or $30,000 each, per year.

The people working in the reality television industry are often young writers and producers just starting out and don't have full-time staff jobs. Instead, they're freelancers, temps, independent contractors, part-timers and the self-employed. Regrettably, far too many of the people filling these jobs have been mistreated by violations of New York State's wage and hour laws. Working on shows like "Real Housewives of Atlanta" often means working exhausting schedules without breaks or even overtime pay.

As a television writer and producer myself, I've heard of colleagues on location using their own money to buy lunch for a local crew because the production company refused - even though it's a normal part of a crew's compensation. Many are routinely expected to work 12-hour days for up to 10 days straight. But don't take my word for it -- a recent study by the Writers Guild of America, East, finds that 84 percent of writers and producers work more than 40 hours a week almost every week and 60 percent work more than 8 hours a day, every day. Eighty-five percent of these workers never receive overtime pay and only 11 percent report timecards that consistently reflect their actual hours. In fact, a whopping 49 percent say their timecards never accurately reflected hours worked.

This widespread wage theft costs writers and producers in the industry at least $40 million every year. Even if you don't work in the industry, that should alarm you. That missing back pay, along with the $14 million in penalties these violations should cost, add up to a lot of public dollars our state can't afford to do without.

It's not as though these media companies can't afford to pay their workers what they're worth. The average cable television profit margin is almost 40 percent and the biggest margins are at networks that primarily program reality television. For example, the Discovery Channel is a major producer of reality programming and at nearly 60 percent has one of the highest profit margins in the industry.

This injustice should upset any fair-minded citizen. There's simply no reason that these highly profitable companies can't adhere to New York's labor laws and pay our hardworking, creative professionals for their time and effort. Like The Godfather, I can hear them saying, "This is business, not personal." But the impact their greed and indifference has on the personal and professional lives of people just beginning in the business is unacceptable.