New York City Council to Examine Reality TV Working Conditions

A committee will weigh in as the WGA East continues its push to organize the area.

The New York City Council’s civil service and labor committee will be watching TV on June 25, but in a lean-forward sort of way: It’ll be taking a close look at working conditions in the city’s reality and nonfiction TV sector.

The move comes amid continuing efforts to unionize that portion of the industry by the Writers Guild of America, East, which will provide testimony at the hearing. In the most recent development, the guild announced Monday that writer-producers employed by New York nonfiction TV production company Original Media will vote whether to be represented by the WGAE in an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. Ballots will be counted the second week of July.

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"There has been tremendous growth and consolidation in the nonfiction television industry in the last year -- including the recent $360 million plus purchase of Leftfield Entertainment by ITV Studios," said Lowell Peterson, WGAE's executive director. "With such economic concentration and leverage, writer-producers are coming to the conclusion that they need a powerful voice of their own."

Original Media produces shows such as Ink Master, BBQ Pitmasters, American Grilled, Dual Survival and Comic Book Men.

Since 2009, the WGAE has been organizing writer-producers in nonfiction television, which has boomed in recent years by creating low-cost, highly profitable programming that relies on low wages, smaller crews and longer work schedules by freelance employees with no health care. Well over 1,000 skilled creative professionals work in this field in the New York area alone. The WGAE has been working with writer-producers and production companies to help define and enforce industry-wide standards that can allow for these professionals to build long-term, stable and secure careers. 

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An industry-wide committee of writer-producers calling itself the NYC Nonfiction Producers and APs Organizing Committee wrote a letter to Original employees regarding the NLRB vote, which read in part:

"This isn’t about bad companies that deserve unions and good companies that don’t -- it’s about an industry that is untenable for the freelancers that make it work, and about those freelancers having a say in the direction of their own professional lives by negotiating together with the huge media conglomerates that currently call the shots. It’s about freelancers from every company working together to share best practices and big ideas about how this industry could work better for them, fixing what doesn’t work and solidifying what does."

The WGAE has negotiated collective bargaining agreements with three nonfiction television production companies, is at the bargaining table with a fourth company and is awaiting the outcome of an NLRB appeal at a fifth. In November 2013, the union issued a white paper describing the working conditions in this part of the industry titled The Real Cost of Reality TV: How the Nonfiction TV Industry Steals Tens of Millions of Dollars From New York Taxpayers.

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Twitter: @jhandel