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Property Brothers and Mayday producer Cineflix Media faces a $35 million class-action lawsuit that alleges freelancing Canadian factual and reality TV workers are denied proper pay, job security and benefits.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice claim alleges that contract employees on a range of Cineflix productions as independent contractors have been denied “basic minimum standards” under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.
“Cineflix owed and owes the class members a duty of care based upon the special relationship that developed between them as a consequence of Cineflix’s retaining the class members to perform production work on Cineflix’s behalf,” says the complaint.
The allegations have not been proven in court, and the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has not yet ruled on whether it will consider the class-action lawsuit, which claims Canadian factual and reality TV workers have been improperly classified as independent contractors.
Cineflix Media CEO Glen Salzman told The Hollywood Reporter that his company has retained lawyers and “will defend ourselves vigorously.” His company, though based in Montreal, has offices in Toronto, New York City, London and Dublin.
Cineflix produces the hit series The Property Brothers, hosted by renovation experts and siblings Drew and Jonathan Scott, in partnership with HGTV. The Scotts, who broke out on the Discovery-owned cable channel with their first namesake series in 2011, now have four series on the air and are responsible for more original episodes annually on HGTV than any other talent.
Toronto-based TV production worker Anna Bourque, who is named as the sole plaintiff in the lawsuit and worked on the sixth season of Property Brothers, said Canadian workers on local film and scripted TV productions are covered by union agreements with IATSE, NABET and other guilds.
Reality TV workers, by contrast, as independent contractors are denied minimum pay and labor standards as picture editors and story editors routinely work against tight deadlines to turn hundreds of hours of footage into Canadian-made factual and reality TV shows that air and stream worldwide.
“With wages, we should be able to say here’s what they are. And overtime should be paid. The shows should be scheduled better. After all, why am I working for half the money I agreed to?” Bourque told The Hollywood Reporter.
Cineflix Media, which also produces the popular American Pickers series, is named in the class-action suit brought by Toronto legal firm law firm Cavalluzzo, even as rival Canadian factual producers like Boat Rocker Media and Insight Productions are also expected to become subjects of additional lawsuits.
The complaint is also on the radar of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), which represents unionized workers at the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster and Vice Canada, and is looking to organize factual and reality TV workers countrywide.
“Reality and factual TV are the wild west of the entertainment world,” said Lise Lareau, a CMG coordinator, in a statement. “People working in this area of production are cut out of labor laws. They don’t have the rights of other employees, and historically they’ve been left out of union contracts enjoyed by the rest of the entertainment industry,” she added.
The market for Canadian factual and reality TV series remains strong, especially for local versions of international formats like Amazing Race, Big Brother and The Bachelor, as domestic broadcasters battle against Netflix and other digital insurgents for viewer attention.
Canadian broadcasters have traditionally given their best primetime slots to U.S. network versions of Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Big Brother, The Voice and Amazing Race, and typically air local versions of the international formats as summer fare, or between seasons for American versions to retain audience interest.
For local workers on the Canadian format versions, reduced license fees paid by domestic broadcasters means indie reality TV producers continue to hire freelancers who are cheaper and more flexible as they work long hours and against tighter deadlines to deliver episodes to air.
But local reality TV producers argue Canada is following the U.S., the U.K. and other major English-language TV markets in hosting unionized movie and scripted TV production, while using non-union crews and performers for factual and reality TV production.
Canadian reality TV producers insist the Canadian Media Guild is flexing its muscles at an inopportune time, as they face increasing obstacles to profitability in a fast-changing media landscape. In addition, they argue freelancers that work on local reality TV productions prefer the flexibility and autonomy of the so-called gig economy.
“You bill differently and get tax write-offs,” said one major TV producer who preferred to remain anonymous. “The whole industry works that way.”
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