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The Reality of Reality TV: Alleged "Sweatshop Conditions"

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Hollywood, CAThe reality for many workers on US Reality TV shows is long hours, and little or no overtime pay -- a contravention of California overtime statutes. It is for this reason that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is attempting to organize workers, to help them get a better deal from their employers.

overtime tv realityLast Tuesday, 12 former workers of such leading TV shows as American Idol, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader, and Amazing race filed complaints with State labor officials, seeking $500,000 in unpaid overtime and penalties.

Their plight is best represented by Justin Buckles, a former production assistant and production coordinator on the show 'American Idol.' Various reports state that Buckles claimed to have routinely worked 12 to 20 hour-days, seven days a week -- without lunch breaks.

According to reports, when he approached his supervisor seeking either a raise in base pay or the overtime compensation that was his due according to State labor laws, the 28-year-old was threatened with dismissal.

There are several ironies here. 'American Idol,' which airs on FOX, is the most-watched television show in the US, routinely pulling in 30 million viewers a week on average. That kind of audience would translate into millions of dollars in ad revenue.

However, it is also widely believed that reality television programs are far less expensive to produce than hour-long dramas, or sitcoms involving a host of stars commanding large salaries. While there are production costs associated with every show produced, reality shows cut the networks some economic slack in that the stars are real people, rather than highly paid actors. The fact that Reality TV continues to be all the rage right now is a bonus for networks: not only are these shows allegedly cheaper to produce, they're also pulling in the audiences and therefore, the ad revenue.

It's a win-win for everybody, it seems, except for the front-line workers that the WGA claims work in sweatshop conditions.

It is not uncommon for people to work long hours on a set of any entertainment show, whether that be a movie or a production for the small screen -- even live theatre. Twelve-hour days for actors and directors are routine. However, given the robust compensation the mainstays of the production enjoy, such as the stars and the director, long hours go with the territory.

The same cannot be said, however, for front-line workers and support staff that fail to command the high salaries paid to the principles.

When he went to his superior to complain about his workload and ask for fair compensation, "I was told I was completely replaceable, and that if I decided to speak out, I would be blacklisted and would not be able to work in the industry again," Buckles told Reuters. He last worked on 'Idol' in 2006.

The claims were lodged with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, and is part of a broader campaign by the union representing Hollywood writers to dramatically improve the lot of the front-line worker, and to end the so-called "sweatshop conditions."

This issue actually stems from the recently settled writers strike, after the WGA sought to gain jurisdiction over the reality TV empire. The union dropped that demand in order to reach the settlement that eventually saw the writers go back to work.

The union says that upwards of 1000 writers, producers and editors from reality TV shows have signed authorization cards asking for union representation. The Writers Guild of America claims that these workers serve as the functional equivalent of writers in the creation of dramatic tension, 'and the artifice of spontaneity,' by helping to stage interactions with contestants and editing hundreds of hours worth of tape in what eventually winds up as compelling story lines.

It has also been reported that hosts, celebrity judges and even some amateur talent on shows such as American Idol receive scale wages and benefits through membership with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The industry, in turn, advocates that such workers are not writers, as they don't pen conventional scripts, or dialogue.

It should be noted, for the most part, that reality TV shows are produced by independent producers and/or production companies, and not by the networks directly. However, it is not known if such producers of hugely popular TV shows reap the rewards gleaned from high ratings and advertising revenues.

And even with the prevailing attitude that 'the show must go on,' and the general acceptance and expectation of long hours in the entertainment industry, such tradition does not preclude basic human rights. And no one should have the permission, or the capacity to work someone into the ground, without due compensation, just because they can.

That's what State overtime statutes are for, and that's what lawyers are trained to protect and honor.

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