Over 80 Percent of Reality TV Pros Are Uninsured, Receive No Overtime, New Survey Finds (Exclusive)

Courtesy of Johanna Vanderspool

Data collected from members of the advocacy group the Nonfiction Professionals "Union" also suggests wages have stagnated in some roles over the past 20 years.

Over 80 percent of professionals working in nonfiction and documentary television do not have health insurance and have worked significant amounts of unpaid overtime in the past five years, according to the results of a new survey released by a group advocating for better protections for these workers.

Eighty-two percent of 128 polled nonfiction TV workers say they are currently uninsured (with less than 16 percent receiving health insurance from their employer), while 85 percent say they have worked six- to seven-day work weeks with 12- to 16-hour days in the past five years without overtime pay, according to data from the NonFiction "Union." (It is a violation of California Labor Code Section 510 for employees to work those hours with no overtime pay.) The group, which began meeting in 2018 and now has more than 1,500 professionals in its membership, released the data as part of a new awareness initiative that is kicking off Wednesday called #RaiseOurStandards. The campaign aims to shed light on the current work and wage reality for the nonfiction TV workforce, composed largely of non-unionized workers, though writers at some production houses on the East Coast have notably organized with the WGA East and the Editors Guild has unionized a few others in the past decade.

As part of the campaign, the NFU also released data on weekly pay for standard roles in nonfiction and documentary television over time to make the case that wages have stagnated. The average rate for a story producer in 2000 was $2,225.00 a week, while in 2019 it was $2,202.72, according to the group, which arrived at the figures by combining 2017-19 pay survey data from the popular Women Working in Reality Facebook group (which yielded 2,505 responses) with that from a 2020 NFU survey (224 responses). The average rate for a story associate producer also fell between 2000 and 2019, from $1,925.000 a week to $1,287.88, while a supervising producers' ($2,812.50 to $2,862.50) and production managers' rates ($2,020 to $2,031.32) stayed largely stagnant.

Meanwhile, average production assistant rates rose 50 percent in the past 20 years (from $550 to $827.36), while segment producer rates rose nearly 22 percent ($1,377.50 to $1,677.38) and field producer rates rose 46 percent ($1,659.00 to $2,417.02), according to the data. In the meantime, the average rent in Los Angeles rose 65 percent between 2010 and 2019 alone, according to a RentCafé study looking at data from PropertyShark, Yardi Matrix and the U.S. Census Bureau. In New York City median rent prices rose 35 percent between 2010 and 2019, according to data from PropertyClub.

The NFU additionally notes a discrepancy between the rise in pay for nonfiction TV's non-unionized writers and for WGA West-unionized documentary writers: Between 2005 and 2020, one-hour documentary writers at the WGA West's weekly rates rose 43 percent (from $5,018 to $7,193) while an "average non-union nonfiction story producer's" rose 12 percent (from $2,100 a week to $2,351), according to the NFU. THR has reached out to the WGA West for comment on these figures. 

In a survey of its members, the NFU says it additionally found that 89 percent of professionals say that working conditions had degenerated in the past five to 10 years, while 65 percent report it was harder to find a job within the last half-decade. The overwhelming majority (93 percent) say that they cannot retire with their current rates and savings, while over half (53 percent) say they are currently unable to save. The survey additionally highlights that, in some cases, employers aren't offering or are refusing to pay for computer kit rentals (79 percent), cellphone reimbursement (84 percent) or parking (45 percent).

One goal of the data and #RaiseOurStandards campaign, organizers say, is to promote awareness inside and outside the industry to nonfiction's work conditions and general lack of unionization. "With nonfiction, I think a lot of people think 'Oh, it's so glamorous.' But we're the people in the field, we're on the ground," story producer Marisa Tambornini, the head of the NFU's story subcommittee, says. "I think a lot of people assume that we have job protections and health and pension and overtime and we just don't."

Another is to educate freelance nonfiction professionals about their rights and community to eventually generate collective action. As a part of the campaign, the NFU is also asking these workers to negotiate rates upon returning to work post-COVID-19 shutdowns and to report employment offers they receive to the organization (the NFU itself will offer a "negotiation refresher class" for those unschooled in the practice). If low offers appear to be repeatedly originating with specific companies, the NFU says it will pass that information on to unions it has been in contact with, including IATSE, the Teamsters, the WGA and the Editors Guild.

That ask, field team subcommittee head Elisa Schwartz says, responds to a general fear that weekly rates will further decrease for workers following the COVID-19 crisis: "My concern is that if there was a floor, it's going to drop out. Now they're going to say, 'You know whatever salary you got? Now, the budget's even tighter, now things are even smaller.' And the hours aren't going to change, the expectations aren't going to change, the production calendar isn't going to change."

The NFU is additionally encouraging participants to submit video and written testimonials of their experiences in nonfiction television (which can be submitted anonymously) and to use the hashtag #RaiseOurStandards to promote the campaign's visibility. "Our industry standards have been lowering every year," nonfiction showrunner and NFU lead organizer Johanna Vanderspool says in a statement. "There is great fear that returning to work post-COVID, many will have to sacrifice their health, safety, pay rates and lower once again their meager standards just to return to the work they love. The NFU #RaiseOurStandards [campaign] is a way to educate industry and non-industry communities about our plight, as well as hold television networks and streamers accountable for their actions."

Watch the NFU's video about its #RaiseOurStandards campaign at this link.