January 22, 2009 / 1:38 AM / 10 years ago

Settlements reached in reality TV labor suits

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Several major U.S. TV networks and the producers of such reality shows as “Trading Spouses” and “The Bachelor” have agreed to pay over $4 million to settle two lawsuits claiming violations of California wage rules.

The settlement will benefit more than 400 workers who were part of the 3-year-old class-action cases, and some of those individuals stand to reap tens of thousands of dollars, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Emma Leheny, said on Wednesday.

In addition to “Trading Spouses” and “The Bachelor,” the shows covered by the suits included “The Will,” “Are You Hot?”, “Joe Millionaire” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”

The litigation coincided with a broader ongoing effort by the Writers Guild of America to obtain a labor contract for the creative workers behind unscripted TV productions as a whole, such as “American Idol” and “Survivor.”

Some of those programs rank among the biggest hits on U.S. television and are far cheaper to produce than traditional prime-time dramas and sitcoms.

The suits claimed reality show employees routinely put in as much as 80 hours a week without overtime, were denied work breaks for meals and were forced to falsify their time cards, all in violation of state wage and hour laws.

“We really found pervasive violations,” Leheny told Reuters. “It seems to be a system based on the underpayment of workers in an industry where employers are looking to save money and speed up production, create very profitable shows, and the people who are shortchanged are these employees.”

A spokeswoman for lawyers representing the defendant companies declined comment. Defendants included the networks CBS, ABC and Fox, and the production companies Rocket Science Laboratories and Next Entertainment.

A Writers Guild spokesman, Jeff Hermanson, said the violations cited in the two class-action cases “were just the tip of the iceberg.”

“There are literally thousands of people suffering the same abuses,” he said. “Not only do they not receive overtime and meal breaks, they don’t have health insurance or pensions, credits or residuals.”

In addition to the legal settlement, some reality TV workers have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars through separate complaints filed with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, Hermanson said.

The Writers Guild sought to gain union jurisdiction over reality shows in its last round of contract negotiations but dropped that demand in settling its 14-week strike against major studios.

The WGA says roughly 1,000 reality TV “story-tellers” have signed authorization cards asking for union representation.

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

But the union says they serve the functional equivalent of writers by working to create dramatic tension — and the artifice of spontaneity — by helping to stage interactions of contestants and editing hundreds of hours of tape into coherent, compelling story lines.

Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Osterman

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