American Idol might be a hugely popular TV programme aired by the Fox TV in US. But many employed by Fermantle Media, the producers, are suffering substandard working conditions, say activists.
The Writer's Guild of America West, and the Writer's Guild of America East and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters recently launched the American Idol Truth Tour.
Starting June 17 in Daly City, California, about 50 reality TV writers and supporters have been staging a series of protests in cities where "American Idol" holds auditions to highlight the poor treatment of writers in the reality TV industry.
"Time cards have been filled out often illegally, people are being asked to work through their lunch breaks . . . and work 15- to 20-hour days, frequently seven days a week," said David Weiss, vice president of the Writers Guild of America, West, at a rally outside the guild's Los Angeles headquarters.
A Fremantle spokesman declined to comment.
Reality television is a rapidly expanding segment of the entertainment industry that constitutes almost half of local television production. The Writers Guild of America, West, commissioned Goodwin Simon Victoria Research, an independent research firm, to conduct a study of working conditions for reality television writers.
The results show that almost all reality television writers are classified as exempt employees who overwhelmingly work long hours and receive no overtime pay, health insurance, or other benefits.
The study found that most reality writers do not meet the salary or job duties requirements to be classified as exempt.
The misclassification of reality writers as exempt employees and the failure to pay overtime indicates that the entertainment industry may be in violation of wage and hour law, with a potential annual industry-wide liability of at least $30 million. In California an employee can file a wage claim with the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) to collect unpaid overtime from employers under a 3 year statute.
In the case of reality writers the survey results indicate that the total overtime liability for employers could reach almost $100 million.
The tour marks the latest tactic by the Writers Guild to extend union benefits to writers in the burgeoning reality TV and game show sector. Guild leaders contend that writers are pivotal to such shows and deserve the same protections as their peers. Producers argue that writers act more as editors and producers and have denied creating sweatshop conditions.
The union has backed high-profile lawsuits against reality show producers, which are pending; led an unsuccessful strike against the producers of "America's Next Top Model"; and later helped workers file complaints with the state alleging various wage and hour violations, many of which have been settled.
Now the union is targeting one of the biggest players in the business. A subsidiary of London-based Fremantle Media, the company's prime-time programs include "Million Dollar Password," "Farmer Wants a Wife" and "America's Got Talent."
Late last year, the guild protested outside Fremantle's offices after unsuccessful efforts to represent writers on the game show "Temptation." And in April, the guild helped nine former Fremantle employees file more than $250,000 in wage and hour claims with the state.
Whether the latest tactics will work is unclear. But the guild has drawn support from Teamsters Local 399, which aims to represent drivers on "American Idol." Jobs with Justice, a prominent nonprofit, is collecting signatures on a memorandum that reads -
As a concerned member of the public, I am writing to let you know that I support Fremantle writers and other workers who help make your programs, including American Idol, such a success. I strongly believe Fremantle should properly recognize the contribution of its employees by providing them with industry standard benefits.
As the producer of the most popular show on television, Fremantle has the responsibility and the means to provide industry standard benefits to these workers. FremantleMedia North America is the largest profit contributor to its immediate parent company, FremantleMedia, Ltd., a network of global production companies producing shows in 55 countries. With the success of American Idol and other hit shows, you should be able to provide benefits like portable health insurance and a pension plan.
It is time for Fremantle to do the right thing. Don't be unfair to your workers by withholding overtime pay, failing to provide meal breaks and industry standard benefits.