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Dangerous work: the reality about reality tv

The most dangerous job in television used to be that of the war correspondent, who travels the world covering one bloody conflict after another. There is a muted heroism inherent in the grim task, much like a field doctor or an aid worker. Deaths are lamentable, but something unavoidable. It comes  with the territory, and everyone understands and accepts this dire fact.

Today, people also die filming reality tv.

I am a shooter and I have had many close calls myself. I know of three Canadians doing the same job that I do who have died in the last few years.

Nothing heroic about any of it, but utterly stupid and utterly avoidable.

Still, more people will die before we see a change.


There are four reasons why reality tv will continue flirting with danger and death:

1. The most dangerous shows get the biggest numbers.

2. Fighting to survive in the current tv climate, broadcasters push for riskier and riskier stuff.

3. Production execs like the smell of money too much to remember boring stuff like crew safety.

4. Desperate crew members know to keep silent, or be replaced by an endless supply of younger and eager cannon fodder.

I need go no further than myself. With a fairly long and sometimes decent career behind me, I find myself shooting ever more dangerous shows for less and less money.

This might sound bitter, but the truth is that I don’t mind danger if I can make that judgement call myself.

What I don’t like is being pushed into dangerous and possibly life-threatening situations on a daily basis, as a routine. Here is a short list of totally stupid stuff every shooter will recognize:

– shooting without a seat belt in a car. It happens all the time.

– shooting in helicopters without proper safety harnesses, or with dare devil pilots.

– shooting on boats without proper safety equipment, even basic stuff like life vests.

– shooting high angle shots from cranes etc., without proper safety equipment.

And that’s just the beginning. Add to this that many of the jobs are inherently dangerous, like filming police, fire fighters or deep sea fishermen.

I have come close to dying at sea, in the air and on land. But like everyone else who has ever been dependent on a pay cheque, I very rarely raised a concern.

An outsider might think that there would be rigorous safety training and hefty insurances living on the edge like this. But an outsider would be surprised.

Most of reality television is non-union, and there are no rules.

Insurances are all over the place, and in some cases non-existent. It would be foolish for crew to complain if you want to be sure to hang onto the job.

I’ve come across safety training once or twice in all my years, and both times it has been last minute and totally unnecessary since we had been doing all the dangerous stuff for days already and were well accustomed to it.

Only once have I been offered danger pay, and that was to shoot in a very dangerous location for a long time. I took the money, and I appreciated it.

One of the strangest things in my field of work is the silent and stoic machismo that permeates the field. I met an American shooter on a job once, and he proudly told me how he had shadowed and secretly filmed a murderer who had just shot three teenagers. All I could think of was why in God’s name? For what purpose?

What is needed, urgently, is an industry-wide agreement on work safety and insurance requirements.

No small task. The ground is perhaps more fertile now than a couple of years ago, since everyone is talking about the abuses. However, that is still a long way from galvanized solidarity. One man down is an opening for someone else. The competition is pretty hardcore.

A lot of the organizing will have to be done in secret, exactly like in the early days of the labour movement. But I hope it continues, and I hope it succeeds.

Name withheld by request to protect the worker’s ability to get work. 

Click here to find out more and get involved in the CMG campaign for better working conditions in factual tv.

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