Reality Stars Not ‘Employees’

July 25, 2014
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Over the past decade, reality television has dramatically increased in popularity.

This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that viewers across America are fascinated with imagining themselves as actual participants of these programs—giving them the ability to blend both fantasy and reality within their own living rooms.

Regardless of reality TV’s new central position in today’s television economy, reality television stars have relatively little legal protection compared to professional talent.  Working conditions for both reality TV stars—as well as their crews—have improved little in recent years. This poor treatment has spawned a number of complaints against networks themselves, as well as strikes and eventually, lawsuits.

So, by volunteering themselves for these television shows, are reality television participants giving their informed consent?

Illicit Practices of Reality TV

Before the cameras begin to roll, reality stars are forced to sign extensive contracts, releasing the producers from any and all liability. This release includes the ability for participants to be considered ‘employees’.

As a result, behind the scenes of many of today’s popular reality TV shows, producers and writers are suffering from wage theft.  It has been reported that those behind popular reality shows lose nearly $30,000 per year in unpaid wages, by working without breaks and overtime pay, totaling a shocking $40 million a year across the reality television industry itself.  In addition to these lost wages, studios are not forced to provide health benefits, pension plans, or compensation for sick days.

Should production companies be forced to implement more protective measures?  Perhaps.  It is a well-known fact that networks and production companies rake in millions of dollars in yearly profits from reality-television programs, yet many in the industry feel that they are not obeying wage-and-hour laws. As a result, the Writers Guild has begun demanding collective bargaining rights for its employees, in addition to calling on local law enforcement to investigate what they consider to be labor law violations.

Amending Reality TV Employment

While reality-television stars within the United States are not currently considered ‘employees’, in other countries, this is not the case.  In 2009, in a landmark case in France, contestants on a French television reality show secured the right to be treated as employed workers.  This meant that the show’s contestants were now entitled to overtime payments and other benefits, including the benefits of a full employment contract—and a 35-hour workweek. This decision led to extreme changes in the French television world, including the end of illicit practices.

The issue is currently still under debate within the United States.

We love to hate them, but reality television shows have never been more popular. Check out my other posts regarding the legal aspects of reality television and reality stars: