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Reality a Sweatshop, TV Writers Allege

Times Staff Writer

On his first day as a story assistant for the reality TV series “Renovate My Family,” Zachary Isenberg said, his bosses made an unusual request: Fill out your time card for the next three weeks of work.

Isenberg was puzzled. How could he estimate his hours before he worked them?

“They said, ‘It’s crazy in production and the accountants need the paperwork right now,’ ” the 32-year-old writer recalled. So Isenberg, who hoped that the job would further his prospects in TV, did as he was told.

Thus allegedly began a 2 1/2 -month ordeal -- marked by interminable workdays spent in overheated, cramped offices -- that is part of the basis for a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Isenberg and nine other writers and editors on seven reality TV shows.

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The suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Fox Broadcasting Co. and Rocket Science Laboratories repeatedly violated California labor laws by denying employees overtime pay and meal breaks and requiring them to submit false time cards. The plaintiffs are seeking back pay and unspecified damages.

Although Rocket Science produced the shows -- which include “Trading Spouses” “Joe Millionaire” and “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay” -- Fox set their budgets and maintained close control over their development, the suit alleges.

Representatives of Fox and Rocket Science declined to comment.

The Writers Guild of America, West, is backing the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, to put pressure on production companies and networks involved in the burgeoning reality TV business. The guild, which unveiled a push to organize reality TV writers in June, backed a similar suit last month against several networks and production companies.

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Reality TV producers have disputed allegations that their employees toil in sweatshop conditions. They say writing for a reality show, which often involves plotting out story lines and editing interviews as much as writing dialogue, isn’t the same as working on a scripted program.

Guild officials contend, however, that writers for reality TV play an integral role and deserve similar benefits to those enjoyed by their peers in movies and scripted television.

“These folks are doing work under appalling conditions,” said guild President Daniel Petrie Jr. “They’ve made a lot of contributions to the success of these shows and they deserve the protection and benefits of the union.”

Joined by Petrie and other guild officials, Isenberg and two other plaintiffs held a news conference Wednesday. Isenberg described conditions on “Renovate My Family” as “unbearable.” Working as many as 80 hours a week left him “so dazed all the time I never had a chance to rest or recuperate,” he said.

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The USC film school graduate broke into the reality TV business two-and-a-half years ago when a friend helped him score a story-assistant job for MTV’s “Making the Band.”

Although his career goal was to direct television and movies, Isenberg figured that the $800-a-week job was a good place to start. “You feel like you’re working on a big show that could help further your career,” he said.

Despite the long hours, Isenberg enjoyed the work.

After a stint on Fox’s “The Simple Life,” he joined a crew of eight writers and producers on “Renovate My Family” in July 2004. The group worked out of a tiny office in West Hollywood with no air conditioning. They were expected to eat lunch at their desks while continuing to work, Isenberg said.

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Not long after Isenberg was hired, Fox executives decided to move up production of the show’s second episode. Suddenly, employees were told that they had to produce a two-hour show in two-and-a-half weeks, or less than half the usual time.

To meet the deadline, Isenberg recalled, he found himself working six days a week, often until 10 p.m. Occasionally, the writers would stay past midnight to screen footage for Fox executives. Isenberg said one story assistant was so distraught after working 28 hours straight that she broke down in tears and had to be sent home.

“Everybody wanted to do a good job and work hard,” Isenberg said, “so people felt very frustrated and angry.”

Through it all, Isenberg continued to receive the same pay, about $900 a week. Under state labor laws, the suit alleges, he and his fellow writers should have received several thousand dollars in overtime pay.

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After 2 1/2 months, Isenberg quit. He is now working on another reality TV show.

“It was a difficult choice,” he said.

“I’m not a quitter. But they treated me like I was nothing.”


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