IATSE Joins Union Drive for Canadian Reality TV Workers

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The U.S. union joins a campaign to organize factual TV producers that includes a lawsuit against 'Property Brothers' producer Cineflix Media.

IATSE, the union that represents most unionized film and TV crew members, has joined forces with Canada's top media union to secure better pay and working conditions for local factual reality TV workers.

U.S.-based IATSE is joining the Fairness in Factual TV campaign launched by CWA Canada to organize reality TV producers north of the border. "Workers in factual TV need a strong, experienced voice that can represent them when they are fighting for better working conditions," John Lewis, IATSE international vp and director of Canadian affairs, said Tuesday in a statement.

CWA Canada's biggest local, the Canadian Media Guild, in October 2018 threw its support behind a $35 million class-action lawsuit filed by Toronto legal firm Cavalluzzo LLP against Property Brothers and Mayday producer Cineflix Media. The legal action alleged freelancing Canadian factual and reality TV workers are denied proper pay, job security and benefits.

The Toronto-based indie producer was not available for comment on Tuesday, but Cineflix Media CEO Glen Salzman at the time told The Hollywood Reporter that his company had retained lawyers and would "defend ourselves vigorously."

Lise Lareau, a news producer at the CBC, Canada's public broadcaster, and coordinator of the CMG's factual TV campaign, tells THR that IATSE is joining forces with her union because attempts so far to organize local factual TV workers have yet to yield industry-wide labor deals.

"Initially, we thought we could get some voluntary agreements, some base level working conditions for everybody. But after five years, this is not going to happen in these nice ways," Lareau says.

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, work as independent contractors and, according to Lareau, are denied minimum pay and labor standards. She said IATSE and her union aim for union contracts that are similar to those in the scripted TV industry but tailored to the factual sector.

"A collective agreement on the unscripted side will look slightly different than the scripted side. The budgets are different. But we want basic pay rates that everyone knows about and aren't kept secret anymore," she says. Top Canadian factual TV producers privately insist the CMG and IATSE are organizing unscripted TV workers at an inopportune time, as they face industry headwinds in a fast-changing media landscape.

But CMG's Lareau dismisses talk of Canadian TV producers being at a disadvantage when reality TV series fill broadcast schedules in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere internationally. "Employers of all kinds have always said 'Now is not the right time.' I know it will require an adjustment of their business models," she says.

"Their bottom line is based on a strategy to engage people that's not according to the law, in many cases, and below the rates of other parts of the industry. They have relied on that kind of exploitation for a long time," Lareau adds.

The market for Canadian factual and reality TV series remains strong, especially for local versions of international formats like The 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 The 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.