July 8, 2005

Reality TV writers claim Calif. labor law breaches

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A dozen writers who work in the
booming arena of "reality" television have sued networks and
production companies for what they say are violations of
California labor law governing overtime wages and meal breaks.

The case, filed on Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court,
is part of a larger campaign by the union representing
Hollywood screenwriters to organize the creative workers behind
such programs as "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "The Apprentice"
and "The Simple Life."

The suit seeks class-action status for reality TV staffers
who toil anonymously to create dramatic tension -- and the
artifice of spontaneity -- with such job titles as story
editor, story producer, story assistant or segment producer.

The suit claims those workers routinely work more than 80
hours a week without overtime, are denied work breaks for meals
and are required to falsify their time cards.

"These violations of California law are no mere accounting
errors," said Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the West Coast
branch of the Writers Guild of America. "They are deliberately
designed to deny these writers the basic rights and legal
protections of fair wages."

He said the suit underscored the "sweatshop" conditions the
WGA says are rampant in the burgeoning realm of reality shows,
which generally can be produced more cheaply and quickly than
scripted shows.

Unscripted programs starring B-list celebrities or
supposedly ordinary folks competing for romance, money and 15
minutes of fame have taken up a growing share of prime time in
recent years. Many such shows are among the most popular on
U.S. television.

The guild says nearly 1,000 reality TV writers, producers
and editors, accounting for most of their work force, have
signed authorization cards seeking representation by the WGA.

Industry executives deny those workers function as writers
because they do not, for the most part, pen conventional
scripts or dialogue.

But the union says they serve as "storytellers" -- the
functional equivalent of writers -- through the work they do
setting up interactions of contestants and editing hundreds of
hours of tape into coherent shows.

The lawsuit names four networks -- CBS, ABC, the WB and TBS
-- as well as four production companies.

There was no immediate comment on the suit from the
networks or the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television
Producers, which represents broadcasters and studios in
contract negotiations.

But ABC said, "We believe that ABC is in compliance with
all applicable laws."

ABC is a unit of the Walt Disney Co., CBS is owned by
Viacom Inc. and WB and TBS are both units of Time Warner Inc.