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Reality TV and documentary writers, producers seek pandemic relief

TV and documentary producer Chris Aiola sits on a stoop
TV and documentary producer Chris Aiola signed a petition organized by the WGA East demanding that programmers create an assistance fund for makers of unscripted films.
(Ed Israel)

During the coronavirus crisis, explanatory documentary series on pandemics have helped drive TV ratings. Among the offerings on Netflix is the presciently timed “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” which premiered before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. this year.

For 35-year-old “Pandemic” producer Chris Aiola, who worked on the six-part series, the popularity of such shows is bittersweet. Even as people may be more likely to watch his show, the shutdown has left him and many of his colleagues in unscripted programming out of work.

Aiola wasn’t able to benefit from Netflix’s $100 million COVID-19 relief fund set up to help productions halted during the crisis, as his work was completed last year. After subsequent projects at other production companies, he has been unemployed since April, the Queens, N.Y.-based producer said in an interview. He can claim maximum unemployment insurance but is worried about what happens when the additional $600-a-week pandemic subsidy ends in July.

“There is an irony in the idea that most people right now are doing the right thing and staying home and watching programming [but] the people who make that programming aren’t sure how they are going to survive,” Aiola said from his home.

Aiola is among more than 1,100 people who signed a petition circulated by the Writers Guild of America, East, seeking financial support for showrunners, producers and production assistants who work on independent, nonscripted television shows. The petition calls on streaming companies and networks to create a fund specifically for those in the nonfiction television industry who have been hard hit by the coronavirus shutdown in production.

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In March, Hollywood unions applauded a government package to help entertainment gig workers. Flaws in the rollout meant many couldn’t access it.

“In the weeks since the coronavirus became a nationwide crisis, many of us have experienced the cost of the industry’s paralysis,” the petition stated. “Each one of us is now staring down the possibility of losing tens of thousands of dollars in expected income. In another industry, there would be severance packages, kill fees, hazard pay. We have received nothing. And no plans have been articulated to lead us to expect that payment is going to be offered. So rather than wait for a package that will not be offered, we demand the networks set aside a fund to support the nonfiction television industry during this crisis.”

Representatives of networks including NBC, ABC, Fox, CBS and Discovery declined to comment on the petition.

Netflix disputed the claim that programmers had done nothing to help unscripted creators.

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“This has been a devastating time for our industry, which is why we’ve created a hardship fund to help the hardest hit, providing nearly two months of continued pay to unscripted crews (along with scripted) whose work on our productions was forced to pause because of the pandemic,” Netflix said in a statement.

Netflix said last month it would pay about seven weeks’ salary for those working on shows that were halted mid-production, such as the 40-member crew of the popular Netflix series “Queer Eye,” coproduced by Netflix. The streaming giant also contributed $30 million to nonprofit groups providing relief to out-of-work crews across the industry.

However, those who worked on some shows made by independent producers or licensed to Netflix would not get such benefits.

The situation has highlighted broader disparities that exist in Hollywood. While many organizations, unions and companies have set up relief funds, the health crisis has exposed a potential divide between narrative productions, like dramas, where most workers are protected by union contracts, and those who create unscripted content for reality shows and documentaries and often work for non-union productions.

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The WGA East has successfully mobilized digital media writers and podcasters to unionize over the past few years. The WGA has contracts at several production companies, including Vox and Vice, that cover workers who do nonfiction production work. But many in nonfiction programming are not covered by union contracts.

Hollywood workers have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, a number of industry unions, organizations and businesses have stepped up to offer emergency assistance.

“When you turn on your television, and you’re turning on your streaming service, you are watching nonfiction shows. They are hugely popular, and the people who made them are unemployed and are getting zero money from them right now,” said Andrew Greenberg, lead organizer for nonfiction television at the Writers Guild of America, East, in an interview. “There’s no intellectual property, there’s no residuals. They make the shows, their employment is over. These shows are being aired right now and then there is a total crisis in the industry where people don’t have work.”

Marisa Tambornini, a 45-year old supervising story producer based in Los Angeles, also signed the petition.

Tambornini, whose credits include many home renovation shows, had been working for an independent producer on a show for HGTV when the pandemic forced a shutdown in mid-March. “When the work ended, that was it,” Tambornini said. “It’s a struggle, there’s no work to be done. It’s scary.”


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