First, a familiar story from America's past.
Around the previous turn of the century, the nation was plagued by sweatshops raking in outlandish earnings while their employees struggled under inhumane conditions. In one infamous example, a factory reported profits of $200 million, one proprietor taking in $50 million himself, yet its employees were discovered to be working loathsome 18-hour days, seven days a week. Lunch breaks weren't allowed, or rest breaks. No basic healthcare, and, obviously, no protective pensions were provided. The conditions of work mills were such a national embarrassment, the outcry so loud that the creation of government protections and unions were understood, even demanded by most of the compassionate nation. Today, we cringe at the memory, yet are proud for the basic protection America has long-since provided its workforce.
Okay, I have to admit that I wasn't totally honest there.
The infamous example I just described? It's very real -- just not from 100 years ago. It's from today. And it's not a mill factory, but FremantleMedia, the company that makes "American Idol." As well as "The Price is Right," "America's Got Talent," "Million Dollar Password," and much more. It's all real.
A moment of background to put this in perspective: Fremantle is one of the world's largest media conglomerates. Last year, the company generated revenue of $1.8 billion. Its program, "American Idol," alone makes a profit of $200 million. Just one of its stars, Simon Cowell, signed a five-year contract for $50 million yearly. Yes - each year. One person. And the writing staff and production assistants are regularly required to work 15-20 hour days, seven days a week. No healthcare. No pensions. And often no time for lunch breaks. And rest breaks.
By the way, remember back during the Writers Strike? When the multinational corporations insisted "reality" shows be taken off the table? Remember that?
Just so you know -- this is what it was about.
It wasn't about rich millionaire writers in their Cadillacs wanting more money. It was about people wanting 40-hour workweeks -- not 140 hours. It was about people wanting basic health care. It was about people wanting lunch.
And the multinational corporations of the AMPTP said, no, take it off the table. And the writers did, in order to get the town back to work. That's what the issue was about.
"There were several days in a row in which I had 45 minutes of sleep a night. We were on a mandatory six-day workweek, and when I asked to go on a five-day schedule, they refused. And I did all this as a writer without benefits, without health insurance, pension contribution., or even respect...[T]hat's the season "Starting Over" won an Emmy for best show in its class.
The issue didn't go away. And now the Writers Guild is addressing it, starting their "Truth Tour," having recently sent a rally to the San Francisco area where "American Idol" held a round of auditions.
It's an issue that other people are finally beginning to grasp. San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Duffy recognized the egregious conditions and has introduced a non-binding resolution, calling for Fremantle to (okay, get this!) - comply with state wage and hour laws. And provide its writers, production assistants, employees with standard benefits.
Wow, what an outlandish, radical concept!
By the way, to those unaware of the term used earlier, "production assistants" is a glorified name for "lackeys." They run errands. Chauffeur others around. Do people's laundry. You know, the glamorous Hollywood stuff. Justin Buckles is a former production assistant for "American Idol." He recalls, "I wasn't allowed to take a break, even for lunch." One day, after working 18 hours again, he figured out how much he earned. "It came to $4.50 an hour."
In case you forgot, minimum wage in California is currently...$8.00 an hour.
"American Idol" alone made a profit of $200 million. Simon Cowell alone was paid $50 million. The company took in $1.8 billion. Justin Buckles wanted lunch. And minimum wage.
(Just think: Fremantle could pay the $250,000 in overtime wages it's currently being sued for, give health care, pay Simon Cowell his $50 million - and still make a profit of $199.5 million.)
"I wrote on a Reality TV show that required me to be on set from 8am to 8pm seven days a week for two months, but often kept me past midnight...The first day off I had scheduled in two months was aborted at 3:30pm the day before."
Reality TV Writer
That's what the issue of "reality TV" is about. It didn't get discussed much during the strike. Most writers don't even know the dirty little secret. But this was and is the point.
It's a point for others, too, as the Teamsters have joined the effort. "Fremantle's non-union drivers often work 18 hours days," says spokesman Steve Dayan, noting that when exhausted, studies show that drivers handle their vehicles as if drunk. And speaking of drunk, comments Tony Cousimano, president of Teamsters Local 399, "Non-union drivers aren't drug-and-alcohol tested."
Oh, tosh, why is that important? "Beer and wine was in the office all the time," Mr. Buckles, the former production assistant, explains. "I know, because it was my job to get people to buy it. People would drink in the office -- and then go drive others around." Worse, it's not just drinking and driving -- but doing so while working 18 hours days without lunch breaks.
Like to be on the road behind one of these drivers? At night?
This too is what the issue of "reality" TV is about.
To be fair, not every staff employee of "reality" TV is working up to 20 hours a day, every day. But a study by Goodwin Simon Victoria Research shows that on average, "reality" TV writers on network television work more than 60 hours a week. Two-thirds say they've been asked by their supervisor to turn in a timecard that only says "worked."
By the way -- when companies don't pay for required overtime, that's money that doesn't get reported for taxes. The government suffers, and the public suffers. Overtime liability for "reality" TV employers could reach...are you ready...$100 million.
If Fremantle wasn't making popular TV programs, but in some other business ignoring minimum wage laws, avoiding 40-hour workweek laws, coercing employees and underpaying taxes, we'd likely see arrests.
"In an isolated location with almost no amenities -- I worked a 19 hour day and then had to return to the production headquarters, where I had to stay up and write the storyline for the next day's field teams. I received no health insurance, no pension contributions, no residuals."
Reality TV Writer
This is what the issue of "reality" TV is about.
What "reality" TV isn't about, though, is reality.
"Reality" TV is not pointing a camera and letting the real world fly by.
It's a fake name for game shows. A fake name for comedy-variety shows. A fake name for documentaries. All of which are required to be covered by the Writers Guild with core, humane, minimum protections.
"American Idol" and "America's Got Talent" are comedy-variety shows. No different from the Guild-covered "Star Search."
"The Amazing Race" and "Survivor" are game shows with contestants and a prize. No different from the Guild-covered "Let's Make a Deal" or classic "Beat the Clock."
"Supernanny" is a documentary. No different from the Guild-covered "The Dog Whisperer" - except the latter has humane, legal protections. You tell me the difference.
All these shows have scripts. All these shows have narration or hosts. All these show have plot twists and created surprises. All the shows have real, actual writers - even if the companies refer to them instead fraudulently as "segment producers" or "field producers." Or "editors."
They are writers. All these supposed "reality" shows are actually written.
So, why in the world are they called..."reality"??
As Abraham Lincoln said, "Just because a cat gives birth to kittens in an oven, it doesn't make them biscuits."
The AMPTP corporations want to call game shows, comedy-variety programs and documentaries "reality" TV because they can get around offering basic health care, giving lunch, paying $100 million in overtime wages. Because they can get around the law - paying taxes, paying the minimum wage, paying for 40-hour workweek.
Society didn't accept such conditions 100 years ago. There's no reason to accept it today. We know better.
That is what the issue of "reality" TV and fair, humane representation is about.
We often worked 18-hour days and were never paid overtime. Low pay with no health care or residuals is becoming the standard in the Reality and game show industry. It's got to stop."
We've read so often recently about the attack on the middle class in America. If you don't think this all is part of it, look closer. Making $1.8 billion and providing the basic humane standards, not giving freaking lunch... that is a frontline battle in the attack on the middle class.
The wind is shifting. From its start, the game show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" was called "reality." But only a couple weeks ago, its highly-successful producer Mark Burnett reached an amicable agreement with the Writers Guild, and its staff is now covered. The costs to his company were minimal -- the benefits huge. It now treats everyone with the respect they all deserve.
All the while Fremantle and its "American Idol" continue to flaunt humane decency.
This is what the issue of "reality" TV is about.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg