These are five things that need to change in order to make reality TV safer. I don’t think they are unreasonable. Do you?
- MORE PRE-PRO. It all starts with pre-production. Many times shows are greenlit and the showrunner is brought on just a few weeks before shooting. Preparation is key and good planning means a safe shoot; there needs to be time for a proper risk assessment and a full safety plan to be drafted. It takes time to assess the environment and then plan appropriately for every contingency. These pieces must be in place before before cameras start rolling because they simply can’t be done on the fly in the middle of the shoot.
- ACTIVELY PROMOTE SAFETY. Safety needs to be put first, second and third. Production companies and networks need to do their due diligence by hiring local experts and logistics people who are experts in that project’s unique environment. That means whether we are shooting in the Arctic, mountains, oceans or jungles, in a 3rd world country, bad neighborhood, dive bar or on a boat, with pyrotechnics, guns or explosives, with snakes, spiders, or diseases, with ex-cons, housewives, bad girls, drug addicts, fishermen, moonshiners, tornado chasers or fashion designers; we need to know that there are experts on board whose sole responsibility it is to understand and manage that risks that are particular to that environment. There needs to be a risk assessment, a thorough safety plan, and ideally (if international) a contract with an evacuation company (i.e. iSOS). There should be safe vehicles and drivers, set medics, security and protocols while working with non-actors. There should be medical care and first-responder medics on location (not just for the cast), a thorough evacuation plan, and a serious assessment of the most likely accidents and injuries.
- BETTER HIRING. Hire more people instead of hiring fewer people and asking them to do multiple jobs. Producers are not shooters, art directors or security yet they are often asked to take on all these roles. Shooters are not safety yet if they are big, strong guys (it’s a fact that the majority of field shooters are men) they take on that role in the absence of the professionals. And here is a relatively simple fix that would have a huge effect on set safety: hire professional drivers. P.A.’s are NOT drivers. Drivers are drivers. The lives of crew members should not be entrusted to the “skills” of a 22 year-old kid who is eager to please and who is afraid to say no or stand up for his/her own safety and the safety of others. AD’s are also important. While not every A.D. is an expert in safety, a good A.D. will have an understanding of the requirements of each department that it will take to get the job done, and will schedule time accordingly. This allows the show to move along at a proper pace, with proper prep and wrap time, and proper turnarounds. It also creates a point person for everyone above- and below-the-line to use for communication. A good A.D. will also have a safety plan and will conduct safety meetings DAILY when working in new or hazardous locations.
- CHANGE THE WORKING HOURS. Days used to be eight hours for shooters. Then it changed to ten, and then twelve. Producers are often told there is no money in the budget for a day off, but then production manages to find a way to give camera crews, audio and tech a dark day. Even on that dark day, camera, audio and tech will need to prep gear or attend production meetings. There is no turnaround if you are paid on a flat rate, and many times crew must travel during the day or through the night to get to the next city and begin another shoot. Producers often work one cameraman’s shift, send him off duty, work the next shooter’s shift as well, then run interviews before starting the next day. Crew paid on a flat rate will work seven-day weeks with no overtime, turnaround or lunch breaks and they do not get the same considerations as other crew members paid on a daily rate. It is not uncommon for a producer to work 50 or 75+ days without a day off.
- MORE DISCLOSURE TO THE CREW. If there’s no safety, we need to know. Just like we need to know if there are cast members who are convicted felons or who have violent backgrounds, if the safety plan is incomplete, if the helicopter pilot had his license suspended or the boat has a hole in it. We can no longer have any tolerance for networks or production companies taking liberties with our safety and deliberately withholding key information that would affect our decision to accept the job. We can’t plan for our own safety without knowing all the important pieces of the puzzle.
Those are my five fixes for reality TV as it stands now. Is it asking too much? Our business is unusual, but there are plenty of people who put their lives on the line for their work and accept the risk that comes with the job. We are not much different in that respect. But no football player or fireman goes to work thinking “I’m going to get hurt today.” And if they did, they would have more protection — be it contracts, human resources, unions, overtime, training, oversight committees, or simply the fact that they are not freelance — in place. They are not lacking in all five of the above.
And so, although what we do is amazing and unique and needs its own set of rules that have to be re-written every time a show is greenlit, I would still love to see networks and production companies adapt a single code of conduct; a baseline of safety standards that everyone adheres to and that we could count on when we come to work.
In February 2012 I was involved in two back to back boat accidents on the same night while filming the History Channel series “Bamazon.” The chain of events that led directly to these accidents had been set into motion well before I was hired as the showrunner of the series. Most of the mistakes were preventable; all of them involved negligence on behalf of the production company, network and the star of the series, who had been hired to handle our logistics on location. I have written a lot here and here about the accidents and what caused them and the nightmare of dealing with Workers’ Comp as a freelance producer. I was profiled in the Los Angeles Times in a front page story which outlined the lack of safety protocols in reality television. I am currently recovering from a serious shoulder surgery (done November 2012) and a recent spine surgery (July 2013). I’ve decided to use my recovery time to be as vocal as I can possibly be on the issue of safety in reality TV. Although I hope to be back stronger than I was before, I will never be as naive about my own safety as I was a year ago.
I have over 15 years of experience in the industry, and have produced many shows about people doing dangerous things in difficult environments. In that time, I’ve taken a lot of chances — it’s part of the job — but I’ve also seen more and more corners cut in the making of these shows. I feel that we, as producers, shooters, audio engineers, story producers, AD’s, AP’s, AC’s, PA’s, have a right to ask for certain safety standards before we sign on for projects. And we should know the full truth about what we are getting ourselves into, so that we can make educated decisions on the risk and reward. In my case, I was lied to about certain key safety elements of the production prior to traveling to location. The truth only came to light after I was seriously injured and needed to evacuated.
I have spoken to many people in the business about safety issues, including colleagues I’ve traveled with for the past decade, executives at networks and production companies, logistics coordinators, safety experts, and over 100 production people who have hit me up on Facebook to share their stories. I’ve asked what we can realistically do to minimize our risks on shoots. Through those conversations I came up with the list above.* I hope that we can see some improvements in our business in the next few years, and that it won’t take another accident, death or lawsuit to change it.
*with special thanks to Andrew Meyers and Thomas Borgnine, who were so clear, concise and thoughtful in their responses