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.

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8 Responses to The Paradox of Labor in Reality TV

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  7. Lou Martin says:

    Great post. I have had mixed emotions watching shows like “Coal,” which helps me as a consumer think about the people at the other end of the commodity chain. But they also distort reality, oversimplify issues, and have the potential to exploit the people on camera and–now as you have helped me realize–the workers behind the camera.


  8. Kathy M. Newman says:

    In the spirit of true confessions, I have to admit that I really enjoy watching people “work” on reality TV. Project Runway and Top Chef lead the list of my guilty pleasures. But the question of whether or not the labor behind the camera is union or non-union had not yet occurred to me, and now I’ll be thinking about that a lot more. Thanks for this stimulating reflection!


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