The Paradox of Labor in Reality TV

While hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs and are looking for work due to the recession, the one place that full employment still exists is on reality TV. Whether reality performers are running a beauty salon in Jerseylicious, or cutting trees in the Pacific Northwest in Ax Men, there is such a diversity of workplaces depicted on reality television it would be easy to think that the working class, instead of being invisible, has become the class that everyone aspires to join.

In addition, the labor process itself is often the star of the show. As Heather Hendershot has observed labor is very often the subject of reality television , whether contestants are designing and making dresses in Project Runway, or coming up with business strategies on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.  And, as Nick Couldry has argued, these reality shows normalize a system in which citizens “submit to surveillance and external direction” while at the same time accepting “the fragility and impermanence of the opportunities it provides.” The irony of labor becoming spectacle at a time when workers struggle daily to remain employed would be almost comic if it were not for the insidious way that these shows obscure real power relations under the guise of entertainment.

While many reality shows feature some kind of labor, the shows that are most explicitly about the white, male working class are the shows produced by one man: Thom Beers. He has built an empire of reality shows about dangerous, dirty, and adrenaline pumping workplaces, including Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, and Coal.  Thom Beer productions include more than a dozen programs on nine different networks, all with an audience of a prime demographic: young men ages 18-24. According to The New York Times  “[Beers] is the unchallenged king of reality television variously known as ‘macho TV’ or ‘testoster-reality’ that has swept across cable channels like a ratings-driven wildfire.” And according to Beers, he is successful because viewers are tired of customary reality programming fare: “Audiences are asking for something that’s real. They want to watch real people, having real life experiences, facing true challenges. . . . And that’s what we give them: real heroes from real life.”

Though the subject of nearly everything Beers produces is hard labor, the camera always highlights the workers’ individual heroic efforts rather than suggesting any need for collective action—despite the depiction of harsh working conditions, long hours, and abusive bosses.  Nonetheless, some cultural critics like Pepi Leistyna see a positive side to some of this work-centric programming. Shows like The Deadliest Catch and American Chopper seem to break with stereotypes and show workers doing dangerous but fulfilling jobs. But Leistyna also points out that these shows miss many opportunities to talk about survival within current labor conditions, flat incomes, and the loss of job security.

To take a more specific case, last year Thom Beers brought a new series, Coal, to Spike TV, almost a year to the date after the disaster at the Upper Branch mine killed 29 miners and raised awareness of the serious safety issues at the Massey Energy owned mine. Despite the Upper Branch mine tragedy, Spike TV’s programming department rushed the production of the series because of its perceived appeal to young male viewers. And though the show is not advertainment in the way that many series are with corporate logos strategically placed on props and decorations, it has brought notoriety to the Canadian-owned Cobalt mine. Like the CBS reality series Undercover Boss, even when corporate management is shown to be out of touch with the lives and problems of their workers, companies still profit by the exposure generated by a reality series. Cobalt’s website advertises the show and uses it to encourage people to apply for jobs with the company.

Coal is misleading in its representation of mining. An increasingly small percentage of coal mining is actually done with the pillar and drill method that is depicted.  Instead, the majority of coal mining now involves the environmentally destructive mountain top mining seen in the recent documentary Coal Country.  In addition, as Good Magazine has shown, from 1985 to 2009 underground mining lost 50,000 jobs while coal production has increased by 20%. The miners in Coal are almost a nostalgic reminder of a kind of labor that may soon be extinct.

Part of the paradox of labor in reality TV is the unfair working conditions that are experienced by people who stage, shoot, and edit the shows created by Original Productions. While Thom Beers takes pride in the fact that in order to shoot in the mine, ten videographers trained for 80 hours and were certified as apprentice coal miners, he should also be concerned about the recent protest by International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) outside his Burbank offices for the exploitation of workers on another show, 1000 Ways to Die.  Earlier this spring, when twenty-five workers decided to sign cards to join the union, they were promptly fired and production was shut down on that series for more than a week.

This protests highlights the irony that in order to offer a well-produced version of reality, Beers and his ilk need dozens of workers who are able to produce the shoots, record and edit the footage, and do the myriad of other jobs needed to produce the “manipulated authenticity” that we expect from reality television. The television industry once had one of the highest percentages of unionized workers, who had the power to bring production to a halt during negotiations. But this strength had diminished with the increase of “runaway productions”—shows produced in Canada and elsewhere—as well as from other changes in the industry.

IATSE has made more inroads on shows that are produced on a lot or fixed location (such as recent agreements with Fremantle with regard to American Idol), but the adventuresome shooting crews on the high seas off Alaska or coal mines of West Virginia are harder to organize. Perhaps the ultimate paradox of labor in reality TV is that the workers are producing shows that normalize and legitimize their own lack of power over their working conditions.

Susan Ryan

Susan Ryan is Associate professor of Communication at The College of New Jersey. She recently completed work as a consulting producer on a documentary about the Teamsters for HBO.

On pasties, poshness and petrol: The new language of class in the UK

On both sides of the Atlantic we have become used to the deployment of proxies for class in political language, but in the UK just recently this has taken a new turn with the political scandal that is ‘Pastygate.’ Now this isn’t a scandal to rival the break-in at the Watergate building, nor is it one to bring down the UK government. Pastygate refers to decision taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on Cornish Pasties when they are heated above ambient room temperature. I know what you are thinking: Sherry has uploaded the wrong blog this week.  But bear with me.

The uproar around Pastygate centred on the fact that this was widely seen as another attack on the working class, insofar as it is they who tend to buy the humble warmed pasty. With VAT running at 20% this was an inflation-busting rise on a working-class fast food staple.  Politicians of left and right have been falling over themselves to be seen eating pasties in the last month, or struggling to remember when they last consumed one, in order to demonstrate their common touch.

At the same time, the budget also saw a widely criticised cut in the top rate of income tax. The Treasury viewed this measure as simply tidying up tax anomalies, but many have read it as part of a bigger narrative of a government of the elite out of touch with ordinary people. Taken together the two tax moves have been woven in to an emerging story that has at its heart class, which we will pick up later.

But first, petrol! British petrol tanker truck drivers have balloted for industrial action over their conditions of service, health and safety fears, and concern over a race to the bottom in terms of wages.  The big oil companies have outsourced the delivery of fuel to gas stations, and the competitive market has seen a wide deterioration in working conditions. Government ministers, while condemning the looming strikes, urged motorists to fill up their tanks while they had the chance, and one even suggested filling up jerry cans to store in the garage.  Roundly condemned by the fire service and the media, the minister involved was portrayed as elitist and out of touch, in part because of the assumption that everyone in Britain would have a garage. The advice caused a fuel shortage as the pumps ran dry as well as a run on jerry cans.

The cumulative effect of these and other stories – apart from the humorous relief it has given to people struggling through a double dip recession and dire unemployment figures – has been a sense that this is a government run by an out of touch elite. Indeed, one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party rounded on him and the Chancellor just last week. Maverick Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Nadine Dorries described both Cameron and Chancellor Osborne as “Two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk” with “no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others, and that is their real crime.”

George Gideon Oliver Osborne used to be just Gideon Oliver.  He describes his decision to change his name to George at age 13 as “his one act of rebellion.”  Osborne is the son of a baronet and Felicity Alexandra Loxton-Peacock. A multimillionaire, Osborne, like Cameron, enjoyed an elite education at private school followed by Oxford University, where both enrolled in the Bullingdon Club, an elite university dining club founded over 200 years ago. Membership elections are held twice a year. Successful new members are visited in their rooms and expected to consume the contents of an entire tin of Colman’s powdered English Mustard.  The rooms are then “trashed” as a symbol of their election. Club members dress in sky blue and ivory colored tailcoats, the whole ensemble costing in excess of $5700. A now infamous picture shows Cameron and other members of the club posing on the steps of a grand building at Oxford.  This image reemerges from time to time and has haunted “Dave” as an unwelcome reminder of his far from ordinary background.

At the beginning of his premiership, Cameron notably said that “we were all in this together,” referring to the collective struggle to endure the greatest peacetime recession in living memory. Deliberately invoking the spirit of the Blitz, he attempted to conjure up a society suffering in equal measure – one with a degree of classlessness. In contrast, the furor over pasties, petrol, and poshness has popularized an image of a group of wealthy elites waging a class war on those below them. The effect, I think, has been – like 1 percent versus the 99 percent slogan of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. — to separate off the elite from an admittedly very diverse mass  – the middle and working class and the unemployed who perhaps share little in common apart from not being part of this uber-elite. And despite Cameron’s effort to invoke classlessness, the language of class has re-emerged in popular discourse, whether it refers to the upper class or to the working and middle classes who perhaps see themselves as having more in common than has been assumed for decade or more.

This new class discourse is driven by the cumulative effect of cuts in government spending, which are causing a huge retrenchment in all kinds of state services provided by central and local government.  While the impact has already been profound, conservative estimates suggest that so far we have experienced just 10% of the full cuts, meaning many more jobs in the public sector as well as numerous services are still to be lost over the next few years. Crucially, this impact is being felt by working and middle class families – either directly in terms of  lost jobs or in the form of public services once assumed to be safe.

At the same time, because of the economic situation, being working class is no longer a pariah state. Equally important, serious questions are being raised about growing and profound income inequality in the UK. In the local elections held at the beginning of May the Conservatives did very badly and commentators in part explained this through the government being viewed as out of touch by the electorate. While pasties aren’t on the menu of the Bullingdon club it seems we are (almost) all pasty eaters now!

Tim Strangleman

Tim Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods.

Talking with the Press about the Working Class

Over the last three months, I have done interviews with and provided assistance to dozens of national and international reporters about various working-class issues, including the American Dream, manufacturing, education, the recession, displaced workers, local and international trade, and, of course, white working-class voting patterns.  A few weeks ago, George Packer, staff reporter for The New Yorker, was a visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies, doing research on book project, and he spoke as part of our annual lecture series. So, obviously, I have been thinking a lot about journalists and reporting on the working class.

Packer titled his lecture, Do Journalist Care About the Working Class? His response was basically, “No!” He argued that the American public is more concerned about celebrity and success stories that often reinforce the American Dream.  While job loss affects people of all classes these days, readers seem more interested in stories about hedge fund managers losing half their fortune than in profiles of manufacturing or service workers losing their jobs.  In part, these attitudes reflect the confusion most Americans have about class.   When asked the open-ended question, “what class do you belong to,” most Americans say they are middle class.  But if given four options — lower, working, middle, and upper class — about 45% choose working class, and about the same percentage identify themselves as middle class.

Packer also points out that hard-nosed, urban, ethnic, and street-smart reporters like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, or Mike Barnacle, many of whom had working-class roots, have been replaced by metro journalists, most with college degrees, who identify themselves as professionals and spend most of their time with people like themselves. Packer quotes Pulitizer Prize winning columnist, Connie Schultz, who has noted that, especially in big cities, reporters have increasingly become privileged by their professional education, social connections, and access to internships and have become a “self-perpetuating” class. As a result, journalists don’t have contacts among the working class or much sense of working-class life and culture. Add to this unsympathetic editors who are more interested in selling upscale readership to advertisers, and journalists these days have natural hesitancy to pursue working-class stories. Put differently, as I heard as a panelist at a Society of Professional Journalists Conference say, there is a high degree of self-censorship among journalists themselves.

In the end, Packer suggested that the recession and the centrality of white working-class voting in electoral politics have made the working class more interesting to some newspapers. I can attest to that, but if my recent interviews are any indication, reporters are generally confused about who is working class, and they don’t understand the political and economic views of the working class.

Most journalists covering electoral politics define the working class as those without a college education. That definition is widely used, not only by reporters but also by some scholars and political analysts, in part because it’s easy to measure. I caution reporters that if they use this definition, then the working class seems to be shrinking as more people attend college.  While some commentators have suggested that this shift makes the working class less important politically, I argue that this is simply a statistical shift.  These days, many working-class people have at least some college education, and the working class continues to matter in American politics. In part because of that, I try to help journalists understand why class is not just a matter of education.  It also has to do with occupation, income, wealth, and – among the hardest aspects to measure – culture.

At the same time, I remind reporters that class is not the only identity that might affect how people view political candidates and issues.  For example, white working-class men might well view economic and policy issues differently from white working-class women or black working-class men. I also try to help journalists understand that the working-class varies politically by region and state, in part because other issues, like race and types of employment, shape working-class cultures.  When we add religious affiliations and social values, things become even more complicated, but that’s the point.  I want to encourage reporters to get beyond their assumptions and stereotypes when they write about working-class voters and issues.

Journalists often ask me to explain why the working class supports Republicans, a pattern that seems to go against their own economic interests. It’s true that a majority of white working-class voters has only supported a Democrat in a presidential election once in the last 50 years, voting for Johnson in 1964, so this isn’t a new phenomenon.  We can’t even tie it to the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. A number of historians and political scientists have studied this trend, but rather than focus on theories about why the working class votes for Republicans, I point out that the trend is shifting. White working-class support for Republicans has been dropping in the northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the far west, and it will probably drop further  — because of Republican policy formulations.  For example, Republicans want to cut the deficit by slashing entitlements, but many working-class voters believe that such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on them.  While the Republicans put down the Occupy movement, many in the working class, both conservatives and liberals, support its economic and social populism and agree with its claims about injustice, unfairness, and inequality.

Packer is right, both that today’s journalists don’t really understand the working class and that the economy and the election mean that reporters will have to cover the working class anyway.   One of the goals of the Center for Working-Class Studies is to help journalists do a better job of telling working-class stories.  I think we’ve had some influence, largely because we take the time to do more than answer a few questions.  We meet with reporters, help them make contact with other sources, take them around Youngstown, and discuss what they hear from area workers and what the statistics about employment, class identity, and political perspectives really mean.

We all complain about and critique media coverage of class issues.  If we want the media to do a better job, more of us need to be willing to talk with journalists. When the phone rings and reporter asks you to comment on how the recession is affecting the working class, or why white working-class people support certain candidates, or how working-class students will be affected by interest rates on college loans, don’t duck.  Take the time to not only answer the question but also, when necessary, challenge the reporter’s assumptions and help him or her understand the working class more fully.  Think of it as teachable moment.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies