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Reality Show Writers Claim Exploitation

Times Staff Writer

Stepping up its organizing campaign against reality TV producers, the union representing Hollywood writers Thursday unveiled a lawsuit filed by a dozen scribes who alleged that they were denied overtime and meal breaks and ordered to falsify time cards.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks class-action status. It is the latest effort by the Writers Guild of America, West, to keep up the pressure on production companies and networks involved in the burgeoning reality TV arena.

“These violations of California law are no mere accounting errors,” said Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the WGA, West. “They are deliberately designed to deny these writers the basic rights and legal protections.”

The 12 writers allege that the violations took place on eight shows, including “The Bachelor” “The Bachelorette,” “Are You Hot?” and “The Real Gilligan’s Island.”

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Named as defendants were networks airing the shows -- ABC, CBS, TBS and the WB -- along with production companies Next Entertainment, Telepictures Productions, Syndicated Productions and Dawn Syndicated Productions.

The defendants would not comment on the lawsuit, nor would Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers President J. Nicholas Counter, who is the industry’s chief labor negotiator. Although he declined to comment on the complaint, an ABC spokesman said, “We believe ABC is in compliance with all applicable laws.”

Writer Harmon Sharp said he never received any overtime pay as a story producer on “The Bachelor” or “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” even though he routinely worked 60 hours a week.

Sharp said he was paid a flat weekly rate of $2,000 regardless of how many hours he worked, including putting in 12- to 18-hour days.

“We were asked to work whatever it took, without any conversation,” he said. “This is just a perfect example of how we’re being exploited.”

Last month, the guild went public with its organizing drive, announcing that more than 75% of writers on TV reality shows had signed cards asking to be represented by the union.

In their organizing drive, WGA officials are seeking to broadly define as reality TV storytellers such jobs as editors. In reality TV, the work of editors is considered crucial because they craft coherent, dramatic story lines from raw footage.

That effort by the WGA has sparked a potential turf war with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, an umbrella labor group that includes editors.

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Although he acknowledged the concern, Petrie downplayed the possibility of a jurisdictional fight. “We have no desire whatsoever to be in conflict with other unions and would be more than happy to cooperate,” he said.

WGA officials contend that because writers are deeply involved in lucrative game shows -- working behind the scenes to craft game formats, coach contestants and create dramatic story lines -- they should get pay and benefits similar to those of writers on conventional programs.

Industry representatives, however, dispute allegations that workers are subject to sweatshop conditions and argue that writing for a reality show isn’t tantamount to working on a scripted program.


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