E&A | WGA's Big Push

Change is in the air. At least it felt that way after Editors Collective’s first session in a series of industry related seminars. The event, held on December 5th, 2013, and organized by NYEC member and Education & Advocacy Director, Anna Holtzman, focused on the Writers Guild of America's (WGA) efforts to better the working conditions in reality television. The 26 enthusiastic NYEC members listened and engaged as guest speaker, Isham Christie, Organizer for WGA East, laid out the facts on the state of industry.  

Isham Christie discusses the state of the reality television industry. Photo by Anna Holtzman

Isham Christie discusses the state of the reality television industry. Photo by Anna Holtzman

So here’s what we learned:

As editors, and members of NYEC, it’s no surprise to find out what jumps to the top of the list when it comes to our biggest gripes when it comes to unfair labor practices. Dark days (or weeks), Rate Stagnation, “Fuzzy Math” when it comes to the 10-hour standard day, were all heavy hitters. In fact, one member even recalled that ‘fuzzy math’ starting several years back when Viacom was sued by the Department of Labor and came up with the ‘hourly rate adjustment method’ as a solution to their unpaid labor. But the overwhelming concern at the top of everyone’s list comes down to the basics; length of the work day (and in turn, the work week - 50 hours!) and unpaid OT.

According to Mr. Christie, the boom of non-fiction programming can be traced back to the 1988 Writer’s Guild strike. In the absence of writers, networks found that they could produce reality based television that was way cheaper than scripted, and it was actually just as popular. So even after the strike ended, networks decided to exploit this newly popular and super cheap genre. Enter Survivor, Surreal Life, Celebrity Ghost Stories, Too Cute, Honey Boo, and an endless list of so many more. Today, non-fiction programming accounts for roughly 60% of all original programming. And it’s largely non-union.  As union members were moving over into this non-fiction world, where all the work was; many WGA members found that – compared to scripted TV –  non-fiction production is complete lawlessness.

Now, we all know Walmart. And how they’re business model works. And well, for them, it works. According to Mr. Christie, television networks are no different. They are in the acquisition business. They subcontract out their programming, requiring production companies to compete with one another for the business, doing whatever it takes to get the business they need to survive. The Race to the Bottom results in delivering cheaper and cheaper shows. And as budgets get lower, rates decrease, crews get smaller, and schedules get tighter. And it will only keep getting worse in a downward spiral until we push back. In the last 20-30 years, network profits in our industry have ballooned, while rates for those who make television have stagnated, and production schedules and crews have shrunk. Does that sound right to you? According to Christie, the rate of exploitation in our industry is probably higher than low wage fast food workers when you consider how much money is being made off of our labor.

The WGA does have a specific strategy when it comes to reigning in the ‘lawlessness’ that has over taken the wild west that is reality television production.  This strategy, mind you, is much more proactive from that of MPEG. They’re going after the big and the bad. They plan to blanket the industry with as many union contracts as possible, making a name for themselves in the genre. And then when at least 7 companies sign on, they can parlay that into a master agreement between them all. Even though the WGA deals mainly with producers and associate producers, in a few cases the WGA West has organized reality shows where they signed both producers and editors, and then passed along the editors’ cards to MPEG. Plus, the WGA is adopting a so-called ‘good guy’ program that’s akin our EC Scores program; awarding production companies with this moniker to let freelancers know that these guys are the ‘good guys’. Editors Collective and the WGA are in talks of combining this into a single unified system.

Here in New York State, we have some of the country’s toughest labor laws. The Attorney General is currently investigating several large production companies for violations in the two most common categories; Misclassification of Workers (if you are working on the premises of your employer, you are - by definition of law - an employee and not an independent contractor. If you are being paid via 1099 instead of W2 -your employer is breaking the law - even if you’re paid through your LLC or S-Corp) And Wage Theft; non-payment of overtime. Existing labor law states that most workers are due overtime (at 1.5x) after 40 hrs of work per week. But! There are categories that are exempt from these OT laws. Editors and producers may fall under the Creative Professionals exemption, and/or the Highly Compensated Professionals exemption– if they earn $100K per year or more. The WGA is currently working with the Attorney General to try to get a legal assertion that producers are not overtime exempt. If they succeed, this will set a precedent that would undoubtedly strengthen the argument for us editors. 

Allegations brought on by the WGA have led to the Attorney General investigating several production companies for wage theft. And if the ruling comes out in the WGA’s favor, these companies could stand to pay up to $4M in back wages. That’s no joke.  And even mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has already pledged support to the WGA. So the Attorney General does have a vested interest in making sure that OT laws are adhered to going forward. That being said, it is possible to conclude that the WGA and Attorney General could pivot this lawsuit win into mandatory union contracts for these production companies. Now that’s change, people. 

So. Where does that leave us? The editors. We’ve done a lot for ourselves already, but to really make change, concrete actions need to take place. Perhaps a Bill Of Rights needs to be drafted from with Editors Collective that outlines basic industry wide standards to which all genres of post production can adhere. Let’s be honest, editing is the glue that holds this ship (with a P, not a T!) together. 

Cheers to Isham Christie!  Photo by Anna Holtzman.

Cheers to Isham Christie!  Photo by Anna Holtzman.

The evening extended beyond the allotted time and spilled over into the bar down the street. It's clear that the event was inspirational and hopefully a springboard for change.  


Written by Geoff O'Brien. With contributions by Anna Holtzman. Photos by Anna Holtzan


Stay tuned for the audio from the December 5th event. Coming Soon...