LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A dozen writers who work in the booming arena of "reality" television have sued networks and production companies for what they say are violations of California labor law governing overtime wages and meal breaks.
The case, filed on Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, is part of a larger campaign by the union representing Hollywood screenwriters to organize the creative workers behind such programs as "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "The Apprentice" and "The Simple Life."
The suit seeks class-action status for reality TV staffers who toil anonymously to create dramatic tension -- and the artifice of spontaneity -- with such job titles as story editor, story producer, story assistant or segment producer.
The suit claims those workers routinely work more than 80 hours a week without overtime, are denied work breaks for meals and are required to falsify their time cards.
"These violations of California law are no mere accounting errors," said Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the West Coast branch of the Writers Guild of America. "They are deliberately designed to deny these writers the basic rights and legal protections of fair wages."
He said the suit underscored the "sweatshop" conditions the WGA says are rampant in the burgeoning realm of reality shows, which generally can be produced more cheaply and quickly than scripted shows.
Unscripted programs starring B-list celebrities or supposedly ordinary folks competing for romance, money and 15 minutes of fame have taken up a growing share of prime time in recent years. Many such shows are among the most popular on U.S. television.
The guild says nearly 1,000 reality TV writers, producers and editors, accounting for most of their work force, have signed authorization cards seeking representation by the WGA.
Industry executives deny those workers function as writers because they do not, for the most part, pen conventional scripts or dialogue.
But the union says they serve as "storytellers" -- the functional equivalent of writers -- through the work they do setting up interactions of contestants and editing hundreds of hours of tape into coherent shows.
The lawsuit names four networks -- CBS, ABC, the WB and TBS -- as well as four production companies.
There was no immediate comment on the suit from the networks or the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents broadcasters and studios in contract negotiations.
But ABC said, "We believe that ABC is in compliance with all applicable laws."
ABC is a unit of the Walt Disney Co., CBS is owned by Viacom Inc. and WB and TBS are both units of Time Warner Inc.