In the eloquent style of American Idol judge Randy Jackson, this afternoon over 150 writers and union supporters marched in front of the show's production company FremantleMedia North America to let them know that substandard wages and working conditions just ain't right, "dog."
Although Randy might say our chants were a bit "pitchy," we were there to deliver an important message: as the producer of TV's top-rated show, which makes them over $1 billion annually, Fremantle should do the right thing when it comes to its talented writing and production staffs.
In addition to Idol, Fremantle produces many other network primetime programs, including Million Dollar Password for CBS, Farmer Wants a Wife for the CW and America’s Got Talent for NBC. In 2007, Fremantle produced more than 1,000 hours of television in the United States. And while Fremantle profits so handsomely from Idol and other shows it produces, the writers and other workers who make these shows successful do not. Workers on Fremantle shows have reported serious workplace issues such as the withholding of overtime pay, and failure to provide meal or rest breaks. Many Fremantle workers do not receive benefits that are standard in the entertainment industry including minimum compensation, health insurance or retirement benefits.
It's all part of the sweat-shop atmosphere fostered by many producers of reality TV -- as they routinely work their employees round-the clock, they make one message clear: complain, and you'll simply be fired. One rally speaker today, former Idol production assistant Justin Buckles, calculated that, as he routinely worked 17- or even 20-hour days, his $550 per week flat fee salary worked out to about $4.50 per hour -- well below California's legal minimum wage.
Another speaker, Ro DiSalvo, said it was particularly fitting to return to New York, where her Italian immigrant grandmother had worked as a seamstress in a sweat shop; as a writer on Fremantle's game show Temptation, she experienced the 21st Century equivalent. DiSalvo was refused even meal breaks, as she and her coworkers rushed to film 170 shows in 8 weeks. "Remember what it was like in college to pull an all-nighter," she explained. "Now imagine doing that every day for months."
All four of Temptation's writers eventually walked off the job -- and were quickly replaced. But in April of this year, eight former employees of Fremantle, the majority from American Idol, filed more than $250,000 in wage and hour claims with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement alleging failure to pay overtime.
With the "American Idol Truth Tour," the Writers' Guild is taking a much more fun approach in appealing to Fremantle to end workplace practices which are, let's face it, more wrong than William Hung's version of "She Bangs." In a thankfully now typical show of solidarity between the two branches of the Guild, East president Michael Winship and West president Patric Verrone appeared together at today's rally, after Verrone traveled the entire route of Idol's audition tour for the upcoming season, bringing the Guild's message to all of the show's tryout sites this season, in San Francisco, Phoenix, San Juan, Jacksonville and East Rutherford, NJ.
Today's stop in front of Fremantle's offices in New York City represented the end of the line -- for now. The funk band which had played throughout the rally on this sweaty afternoon wrapped its last number, and it was time to temporarily deflate the giant rat which has become de rigeur for any well-appointed picket line these days. Symbolically staring up at the 9th floor of the Ziff Davis building on 28th Street, we protesters vowed to continue the fight.
But for now, "Writers Guild... OUT!"
For more information, or to get involved, please visit http://www.truthaboutfremantle.com/.