A 'Riverdale' Crash and How Showrunners Should Push for On-Set Safety (Guest Column)

Set Safety-Illustration by Mario Wagner-H 2017
Illustration by Mario Wagner

While Peak TV has been great for fans, it has been a double-edged sword for the people who create it. More shows mean more work. But as we've seen too often in recent months, physically producing television (and film) can be a dangerous job.

On Sept.?21, after reportedly working a 16-hour day, K.J. Apa, a young actor on The CW's Riverdale, fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car. Thankfully, he wasn't hurt. But his near-death experience shines a light on the long hours of production. Sadly, this has been a serious issue for decades with little done to address it.

Nothing is more important than the safety of the actors and crew. And yet the pressures on production can put that safety in jeopardy. This isn't a piece about Apa's experience. And I'm far from an expert on the problem. But I've produced a fair amount of TV. I reached out to friends in various production departments for their insight, and every person I talked to recounted scary moments driving home after a marathon day. It's the norm, not the exception.

To be fair, no one sets out to roll cameras for 14-plus hours. But budgets — despite healthy corporate profits — are always tight, and, as TV has become increasingly ambitious in its storytelling, it has gotten harder to shoot everything on a traditional episodic schedule. Showrunners and crews are constantly squeezed by the demand for more for less.

That said, let's define our terms. (There's going to be some math. I apologize.) Simply put, production hours do not equal work hours. A "12-hour day" is not 12 hours. Besides not counting lunch, the production day is measured from call time to wrap, not from when the first person arrives to when the last person leaves.

A 7?a.m. call time means transportation is there by 5?a.m., followed by the crew, actors and director. All of this basically reverses itself after the director yells "cut!" on the last shot. At that point, many crewmembers still have at least an hour of work before they go home. So that "12-hour day" has become, in reality, a 14- or 15-hour day. And that's best-case scenario. Repeat that four more days in a row with later and later call times, ending with a night shoot, and you have an exhausted cast and crew driving home at dawn (if they're lucky) on Saturday.

Now add location work. If a location is 30?miles from the studio, production must get hotel rooms. Putting everyone up is expensive, so productions try and stay within that 30-mile zone. But even a location in the zone can easily add an extra hour to everyone's?commute. 

Productions do offer hotel rooms at the 14-hour mark, but most people just want to get home to their families. However, there are times when the comfort a crewmember feels in asking for a hotel room is predicated on how he or she thinks the request will be received. That's not OK. If you're too tired to drive, you deserve a room (or a car service). No questions asked.

So, what can showrunners do?

1. Let everyone in production know that safety matters to you. No one should get in trouble for saying something if they don't feel safe. An open-door policy for the showrunner will demonstrate that you mean it. In addition, make it a policy that if someone is tired, they get a room or a ride no matter how many hours they worked.

2. Language matters. Altering the language of production so we don't call a day that really lasts 15 hours a "12-hour day" will make a difference.

3. If the studio doesn't have a mandated plug-pull at 14 hours, give the line producer the mandate to set one anyway.

4. When you're creating the production schedule with the studio, push to get a weeklong hiatus (or two) built in. Not only will it help you catch up if you fall behind on scripts, but it also will give the cast and crew a much-needed break during a long season.

5. This is the big one, and the hardest to adhere to: If you can't produce your show within the budget and days the studio gives you, then you have to push back, not overextend production. I've worked on plenty of scripts that posed production challenges, and I'm guilty of trying to "make them fit" into the schedule. But sending an episode into production that's unmakeable won't solve the problem. It will only put unfair pressure on the director and crew, exhausting everyone in the process.

Too often, we feel powerless in the face of seemingly intractable problems. But if writer-producers can't change the system, we can at least try and change how we operate within it. Our cast and crew are our families. They bust their asses for us, and we are responsible for them. If we make addressing the hours issue a priority, we can have an impact.

Hawley is a TV writer-producer whose credits include ABC's Castle and Fox's The Following. He is currently writing a script for USA Network. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.