LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood writers on Wednesday launched a protest against U.S. television's No. 1 show, "American Idol," claiming the Fox network talent contest underpays workers and subjects them to sweatshop conditions.
The move by the Writers Guild of America underscores a long simmering feud between the trade union and producers of many reality TV programs, which unlike scripted dramas and comedies are not covered by WGA contracts.
The WGA claims that the companies making "American Idol" and similar shows force workers to toil nearly around the clock without overtime pay or benefits, in violation of California labor laws.
The union has since 2005 sought to represent reality show employees such as production assistants and editors, arguing that the work they do in creating scenarios and outlines for the shows is tantamount to a form of writing.
"All these shows, they're well-structured," said David Weiss, vice president of the WGA West. "You can't sit through an hour of television that is the result of random footage being strung together."
The "American Idol" protest began the day before the program launched its summer audition tour in San Francisco to find contestants for the next edition of the smash hit singing competition.
The union said its "Truth Tour" protest bus carrying 50 participants, including writers and stand-up comedians, will stop in several cities as it shadows the audition tour.
Representatives from FremantleMedia, one of the companies that produces "American Idol," and Fox, which airs the program, were not immediately available to comment.
FremantleMedia is a division of British-based RTL Group, which in turn is controlled by media giant Bertelsmann AG, and Fox is owned by media giant News Corp.
In general, industry executives have long denied that reality TV show workers act as writers, because they do not pen conventional scripts or dialogue.
The WGA protest bus on Wednesday traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where participants planned to set up an alternative show to steal attention from the audition.
Justin Buckles, 29, a former production assistant on "American Idol," joined the bus tour. Buckles said that when he worked on the show he brought scripts to host Ryan Seacrest as part of a workday that often lasted 15 to 20 hours.
"You need to stand up for yourself, and that's what I'm doing at this point," Buckles said.
Weiss said workers like Buckles are grossly underpaid when calculating unpaid overtime. "Some of these guys, when you average it out, are making like $4.50 an hour," he said.
In April a dozen former workers from "American Idol" and other reality shows filed complaints with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, seeking $500,000 in unpaid overtime and labor penalties.
"American Idol" ranks as the most watched series on American television and has propelled Fox to first place in network prime-time ratings. This past season, the show averaged about 28 million U.S. viewers per broadcast and was seen in various countries around the world.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Steve Gorman