Some Nonfiction Production Companies Keep L.A. Offices Open Amid "Stay at Home" Order

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An empty Hollywood & Highland complex on March 13, 2020

Employees at Prometheus Entertainment and Levity Live, which work on shows for History and We TV, claim they fell under a news media exemption in the orders.

Several Los Angeles-based non-fiction film and TV production companies are telling their staffers to keep working despite California Gov. Gavin Newsom and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's respective "Stay at Home" and "Safer at Home" orders on Thursday night.

Prometheus Media, the Hollywood-based production company behind The UnXplained, Ancient Aliens and The Curse of Oak Island on the History channel, and Levity Live, the production arm of the Culver City-based exhibition and management company, both have workers coming into their offices as of Friday. Several former and current individuals, freelancers and staff alike, working at these companies confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that they were told to report to work on Friday or that they would be out of a job.

Shows that are currently up and running include Prometheus and History's Beyond Oak Island (a spinoff of The Curse of Oak Island) and Ancient Aliens,  among several potential others . At least one non-news show is still ongoing at Levity Live for WeTV (the name of the show was not immediately available and sources asked not to give it to remain anonymous).

Employees have heard at both companies from management that they are still at work because they fall under an exemption to Garcetti's "Safer at Home" policy exempting "newspapers, magazines, television, radio, podcasts and other media services" from the order, as well as the "essential critical infrastructure workers" exemption in Newsom's "Stay at Home" order sparing "workers who support radio, television, and media service, including, but not limited to front line news reporters, studio, and technicians for newsgathering and reporting." None of the employees that THR spoke with believed their shows were essential to the good of the public amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, Levity Live has been a vocal leader among multi-faceted media and entertainment brands. We proactively enacted company-wide protective measures. On our television and digital media operations, we shut down active productions in New Orleans, Dallas, and Los Angeles," Levity Live responded when asked for comment. "As the owner and operator of the largest live comedy club network in the nation, we were the first to close all entertainment venues from coast to coast. We took these aggressive steps in order to protect our employees, guests, artists, and the communities we entertain."

It added, "Over the past week, we have aggressively focused on moving all of our operations to a remote workforce. Upon the March 19, 2020, issuance of the L.A. Department of Public Health’s Order: Safer at Home Order for Control of COVID-19, completing that move became even more critical. As a media service, we are an Essential Business. However, no employee of Levity Live is required to come into the office. Obviously, the COVID-19 situation is developing day by day and minute by minute, but Levity Live is a brand that is responsible, responsive and will pivot as often as necessary, for the health and safety of the global community.”

Per Levity Live, staff and freelancers were sent an email recommending they work from home; exception was given to workers who needed to be in the office for their work. Those workers needed supervisor permission to work from the office. Sources for this story said they never received an email described as such.

In an interview with THR, Prometheus Media president Kevin Burns says that as anxiety about coronavirus started to ramp up in his office, he called an initial meeting and told staff, "We have shows to finish, but I don't want anyone to work here if they feel uncomfortable." He added, "For me, I can only speak for me, I'm not worried ... I'm willing to accept the risk, but I'm not going to impose that on any of you." Burns says he told staffers could use their paid vacation days, sick days or unpaid leave to stay at home and encouraged anyone who could work from home to work from home — PAs and editors, he said, could not work from home.

When it became clear a few days later that some shows had to be shut down and freelancers put on hiatus, Burns said he gave freelancers six days of paid leave, as if it was sick leave. The exec said the office was attempting to follow cleanliness protocols recommended by the CDC, except that groups of over 10 people had gathered briefly "for five minutes" for meetings. "I'm struggling to keep people employed," Burns emphasized. "I'm just not in a position to pay people at home. We're not set up to work from home."

Former workers at Prometheus claimed to THR that they were told to wrap early if they wanted to work from home due to fear of the coronavirus. Former associate producer Tara Price, who tweeted about her experience on The UnXplained on Sunday, told THR that she lost her job after requesting to work from home last Thursday, after the World Health Organization had labeled the coronavirus a pandemic. Her supervisor, who immediately allowed her to, later told her it was against company policy and she would have to leave her job to stay home, which she did.

"I was an AP on #TheUnXplained but lost my job due to the president of the production company refusing to allow his employees to work remotely during the #COVID_19 pandemic. I wonder what @HISTORY and @WilliamShatner think of so many lives being put at risk over their TV show?" Price tweeted Sunday. "In fact the entire LA staff was told in a company meeting held by the president of Prometheus Entertainment that they were being "hysterical" and that they needed to "get over it" in response to their #coronavirus concerns."

Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed Price's description of her experience, saying that Burns told the staff that if anyone was at risk, he was, due to his age. (Burns is 64 years old; in a conversation with THR, Burns says he did make that comment.) Burns made clear to those currently employed by Prometheus that they could leave their shows if they chose to, but that he would not allow certain job roles to work from home and remain currently employed.

"I think people are really scared to not work and what's going to happen is there's going to be an evaporation of work for three months," a third source who worked at Prometheus and wished to remain anonymous says. "I don't begrudge people for being fearful of their livelihood. What I can't stand is that there's someone who has a lack of regard for employees to put them in harm's way."

Employees who were still at offices as of Friday described feeling torn between concern for their own safety and concern for how long the coronavirus would endanger their ability to get a paycheck. "People are freaked because it's a paycheck, it's money and the industry could be shut down for months," one source said. On Friday, Burns ordered lunch from Marino Restaurant for those still in the office.

Multiple sources at Levity Live claimed that remaining workers at the office were updated on Thursday night that they could leave if they wanted to, but they would forgo additional days where they could be paid. (Levity Live said no employees are being forced to work.) Producers may get hard drives in about a week's time to work from home. Workers on one floor said, as for cleaning supplies, their kitchen's paper towels ran out last week (paper towels are still available in the bathroom).

Garcetti's "Safer at Home" policy is a legally enforceable order, with penalties including fines and imprisonment. Newsom has said he does not think enforcement of the "stay at home" order will be necessary.

"I can only say that this feels like it's bigger than a basic cable TV show," one source at Prometheus said. "At some point you're going to be on the wrong side of history."

When asked for comment, A&E Networks responded that it "has encouraged all of our production partners to do what is necessary for their businesses to protect the health and safety of their employees and to follow all applicable federal, state and local directives." 

Added A&E, "Where possible, we have offered to assist in putting work-from-home options in place for their teams, and have assured production companies that they are not obligated to deliver content as previously scheduled. We sincerely hope that everyone remains safe and healthy during this uncertain time.”