Reality TV workers are burning out and speaking up

By Megan Jamerson

Reality and nonfiction TV workers say the changing economics of Hollywood are hitting this largely non-unionized part of the industry hard. Photo by Shutterstock.

When Morgan reflects on their career prospects in reality TV, they feel “terrified,” after spending nearly 10 years working their way up from executive assistant to producer. Morgan, who wants to only go by their first name to protect job prospects, says they increasingly rely on unemployment and credit card debt to get by between gigs. 

“We feel incredibly unprotected and very vulnerable,” Morgan says of their colleagues.

Morgan is one of more than a dozen people who work in reality and nonfiction TV who are telling KCRW that as Hollywood studios and streamers continue to tighten budgets, their working conditions are becoming unsustainable. 

They describe a tight job market, lower wages, smaller teams, and punishing hours due to shortened production schedules.

Reality TV and its many genres, including romance, true crime, and docuseries, are usually far cheaper to make than scripted television. A single episode can cost between $100,000 to $500,000 to produce, whereas experienced actors on scripted shows can expect to be paid that per episode. Workers in reality TV lament the feeling that their corner of the industry is the first place to get squeezed when budgets shrink. 

“We already as a group feel like we are underappreciated,” says LoriLee King-Beckman, a production manager with over 10 years of experience in the industry. “It's so cheap because it's built off the backs of people that are being exploited.”

King-Beckman says she first saw conditions worsen during the pandemic. Starting in August 2020, she says, she worked 16-hour days for five months on the home renovation show Restored by Brett Waterman

EQ Media, which produced this show, did not respond to KCRW’s request for comment.

King-Beckman says she kept up a grueling pace for the next two years, but in 2023, as strikes crippled Hollywood, the job market dried up. She had five contracts fall through in quick succession. Now she says available jobs are paying far less. 

King-Beckman says experienced production managers, who juggle everything from location scouting to payroll, once expected around $2,300 a week, but recent job postings reviewed by KCRW showed rates as low as $1,400 a week. 

Story producers who script the narrative arc of shows and post-production editors also say rates are down. Workers tell KCRW they are now left with less to take care of their families and to cover the costs of basic necessities like health care, which few receive through the production companies that employ them. 

Lower pay does not mean an easier job. Some workers allege production companies are ramping up the hours and duties.

One person in a supervisory role on set says the production they wrapped in December required 80-hour work weeks for six months. KCRW reviewed text messages from their manager that arrived at all hours and over weekends. They’re requesting anonymity to protect future employment prospects, but are also considering leaving the industry. 

“If I would have had my weekends protected, it would have been much more acceptable,” they say. But with two children and no days off, “I was close to having a breakdown.” 

This worker, like most in reality TV, is not entitled to overtime under state law because they are paid by the week, not the hour. Many workers tell KCRW they feel unprotected from these long unpaid hours because unlike many others in Hollywood, most of them don’t have a union. 

“Your options are: Suck it up, buttercup, get it done with a smile, do the best job that you can, see the positive in the situation, and you'll be invited back,” says Michelle, a producer with 20 years of experience who wants to use only her middle name to protect her job prospects.

There have been some rumblings about attempting a broad unionizing effort since the 2023 writers’ and actors’ strikes. The Nonfiction Coalition is behind an effort to organize workers on the West Coast. These and other efforts are happening quietly behind the scenes. 

Most workers KCRW spoke with say they are interested in a broader union effort. “Our work makes people very, very wealthy,” says Michelle. “And we deserve the basics.” 

Moreover, with the breaks between jobs getting longer, it becomes more difficult to survive lean times, says editor Jeanie Phillips, who has 18 years in the industry on shows such as Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrls and 90 Day Fiancé. Because most workers are freelance, they depend on savings to cover a couple of months between jobs. Between the pandemic and this industry slowdown, “you just never have a chance to build back up your savings again,” says Phillips. 

Veteran workers say they think they will be able to hang through the slowdown until jobs pick back up, but they are worried about people who are just starting their careers. “You're losing an entire generation of your best talent,” says Phillips.

The uncertainty has workers like Morgan weighing their options. “I don't want to get out of it. I'm really good at this,” they say. “But my hand may be forced eventually.”



Megan Jamerson