Reality Show Contestants Abused! But Will Anything Be Done About It?

Last Updated Aug 2, 2009 2:38 PM EDT

Is this story in today's New York Times about the horrible conditions in which reality show contestants often work the start of something big? Or just a really entertaining look at how far some people will go to be on TV? As of right now its number six on the Times' most-emailed list, sandwiched between Paul Krugman's piece on healthcare and Nicholas D. Kristof piece on "How to Lick a Slug." If you read between the lines, you'll notice it suggests that reality show contestants might benefit from a few union-like protections, even if, I'd add, unionizing isn't exactly in the cards since most don't appear on reality shows year after year. After one "Hell's Kitchen" contestant compares part of the show experience to being like a prison -- it's unclear if she has any first-hand experience upon which to make the comparison -- the story says:
But with no union representation, participants on reality series are not covered by Hollywood workplace rules governing meal breaks, minimum time off between shoots or even minimum wages. Most of them, in fact, receive little to no pay for their work.

It can make for a miserable experience but compelling entertainment, creating a sort of televised psychological experiment that keeps contestants off-balance and vulnerable.
Of course, the story is careful to point out that reality-show contestants willfully join these shows, but the tales of alcohol being more available than food, of night-after-night of minimal sleep, and of a producer tagging along on "Project Runway" when contestants made "a rare phone call" don't make the already seamy business of reality TV look any better -- nor does the reluctance of any of the producers or TV networks involved to be interviewed for the story. There's evidence that some talked on background, but the only on-the-record comment is this written statement from the producers of "Project Runway" which makes contestants sound akin to circus animals, which, I guess, they are:
We always give contestants the best conditions we can. Our budgets are less than half what a similar network show would have, and that means very long days for cast and crew, but our contestants are fed at least every six hours, and there are always snacks and water available.
As this story spreads, though, it's worth watching whether any pressure will be put on producers to be a little more careful with their charges, or whether, because of the very nature of reality TV, there will be a collective shrug, as if to say that people on reality shows get exactly what they deserve.
  • Catharine Taylor

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