It’s been widely reported that the New York Times Company produces highbrow documentaries and dreams of launching its own cable channel. But, the Voice has learned, NYT Television quietly operates three production studios in downtown Manhattan, where a mostly freelance staff works long hours with no overtime pay, churning out lots of lowbrow TV.
The rewards of reality TV are so great that the Times Company has been tempted to trade in its commitment to quality journalism and fair labor practices. Indeed, deadlines for reality TV have gotten so tight lately that the head of a local union accused NYT-TV of running “sweatshops,” and on December 4, the staff voted to bring in the union.
At the center of the controversy is NYT-TV’s highbrow/lowbrow dilemma. While it produces serious journalistic fodder for PBS and NY1, the company’s best-rated shows are Trauma: Life in the ER and Maternity Ward, which air Monday nights on the Learning Channel. These shows splice graphic footage into fast-paced infotainment (the typical money shot is a close-up of spinal surgery or a cesarean section). But unlike, say, Science Times TV, which proudly displays the New York Times logo alongside that of the National Geographic Channel, Trauma and Maternity Ward rarely disclose their affiliation with the Times Company—unless you count a tiny credit that rolls by at the end of the hour: “Produced by NYT Television for TLC.”
One former NYT-TV employee accuses the Times Company of trying to hide something. “Their reality TV unit is like their bastard stepchild,” says this source. “They think they can make a profit off these shows without anyone knowing.”
Technically, NYT-TV is part of NYT News Services, a branding division run out of 43rd Street by Thomas Carley and Michael Oreskes. Oreskes has spoken publicly of the Times Company’s pursuit of a “multi-media, multi-audience vision.” But the action takes place in the studios downtown, at 841 Broadway, 609 Greenwich Street, and 110 Leroy Street. The president of NYT-TV is William Abrams, a former Wall Street Journal reporter best known for launching ABC News Productions, a TV documentary unit.
In an interview, Abrams said the Times Company is proud of all its TV shows. Asked about the branding policy, he said, “Some shows have a prominent and conspicuous Times presence and some don’t, for a variety of reasons. Trauma is a terrific show and it has really high ratings, but because it’s not based on New York Times reporting, it wouldn’t be appropriate to brand that as a New York Times show.” Abrams declined to comment on the profitability of the TV unit.
Sensational content aside, Abrams has a personnel problem. On December 4, 80 percent of NYT-TV’s post-production staff participated in an election in which the union won the majority of the votes. (After disputes were resolved, the final tally was 49-38.) The 130-member staff will be repped by the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG), a/k/a Local 700 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
But don’t hold your breath. In September, when NYT-TV first learned of the union’s overtures, management and its lawyers launched an “ugly fight,” according to MPEG national organizer Tris Carpenter. Company lawyers put together an anti-union Web site and distributed a 20-page booklet called “The Facts About IATSE!” (Examples of alleged union pitfalls: high membership dues, high salaries for union officers, and limited incidents of corruption.) By early November, the company began staging free lunches and happy hours in which employees were invited to “meet Mr. Abrams.” According to one insider, “Supervisors were calling people at home, taking people out to lunch, and pulling them aside in the hallway to tell them that if the company went union, it was going to cost all this money.”
Execs also argued that the union would stop young employees from getting their first crack at editing. This rang true for many newcomers, including production assistant Joey Grossfield, who wrote a letter to the Web site calling unions a “leftover from the 19th century” and accusing MPEG of trying to hamper his artistic growth. Grossfield’s letter was such a hit with NYT-TV director of operations Jonathan Epner that on November 6, Epner e-mailed the letter to every eligible voter. But Epner backed off in a subsequent e-mail, explaining that he personally did not oppose unions in all circumstances—in fact, his own parents had been “organizers for tobacco pickers and migrant farm workers.” Epner declined to comment.
The fight came to a head on November 9, when Abrams gave a speech to the assembled staff. According to one employee who was present, Abrams said, “The Times Company is looking at us as a startup, and if we don’t turn a profit in a few years, they’re going to lose interest.” He begged the staff to “give me a year” to turn things around.
If there’s one reason the union won, it’s because Abrams failed to address employee complaints. While union editors tend to receive $2000 for a 40-hour week, NYT-TV negotiates rates with each editor, often paying them between $1500 and $1800 for what stretches into a 50- to 70-hour week. With few exceptions, editors and assistants are paid a flat weekly rate, with no health insurance or overtime. Science Times TV is said to be well run, but Trauma is not. Indeed, according to one source, the union movement was in large part a protest against executive producer Liane Thompson, who keeps editors in the studio overtime while second-guessing almost every decision they make, resulting in a high rate of turnover. This source claims that many editors’ goal in voting for the union was to encourage NYT-TV to run more efficiently, rather than to make the company pay them for a lot of overtime. Thompson did not return a call for comment.
Abrams declined to discuss specific complaints, saying, “I’m committed to NYT-TV being a great place for talented people to work.” But he is not ready to concede defeat. “We did not feel the union was the best way to manage this business,” he says. “It’s TV, it’s not print. Our customer base is different. . . . It’s unnecessary in our view.” Then again, he says, unionization “could affect our business prospects both in terms of competitiveness and profitability.” Abrams has another argument for fighting the union: It’s the industry standard. He says most of the companies that produce “nonfiction films for cable TV” employ nonunion freelancers.
Carpenter concedes that the union is trying to catch up with an exploding cable market in NYC. But Carpenter says that producers Ken and Ric Burns have standing contracts to use union employees, and in an industry dominated by conglomerates, “It would be wonderful for the Times Company to be a standard-bearer.” As MPEG prepares to enter contract negotiations with NYT-TV, Carpenter says, “Nobody wants to destroy this place. We’re creative, we’re open-minded, we want to come to this with a clean slate. My hope is that the parties can get beyond this campaign and negotiate a good, equitable agreement where everybody gets a fair share.”