They signed contracts agreeing to a 12-hour day, and a five-day week. But in fact the workday could be 20 hours long, and some worked seven days a week -- all for no extra pay. And, they have no health insurance.
That's what writers and producers in New York City's nonfiction and reality TV industry told City Council members Wednesday, describing working conditions they said were exploitative and dangerous.
Some of the problems are similar to those faced by undocumented immigrants in low-wage jobs. But working on famously sensationalistic reality shows entails other dangers: One producer described being left in a prison cell with an uncuffed serial killer.
Perhaps more disturbing, many of the testimonies were anonymous -- submitted in letters read by colleagues -- because writers said they had previously been "blacklisted" after they complained about working conditions and sought relief through collective bargaining.
These shows are supposed to be unscripted, so workers are not unionized like those who write for scripted shows.
About 12,000 New Yorkers work in the reality TV industry, which has grown in the last 15 years, according to the Writers Guild. Unlike other industries plagued by labor issues -- the restaurant industry, for example -- reality TV's profit margins are high, 40 percent on average. Many television companies rely on reality shows for a significant amount of programming.
The Writers Guild is attempting to organize workers in the reality TV industry. Policymakers -- including Mayor de Blasio -- should use their influence to pressure companies to respect the rights of workers. The city has some leverage: The companies lobby the city for tax incentives, and there's no reason to give them any until they resolve these problems.
Despite their ratings, these shows may not contribute anything illuminating. But like any industry, those who do the work need to be adequately compensated and fairly treated.
As freelance story producer Lauren Veloski said in her testimony before the council: "Some of these shows are frivolous and throwaway -- no kidding -- but there is nothing frivolous or throwaway about these hardworking people."
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.