In September 2012, New Jersey Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, who represents the Jersey Shore district where MTV reality shows “The Jersey Shore” and “Snooki and JWOWW” are filmed, proposed the “Snookiville Law.”
The legislation, which is still wending its way through the New Jersey State House, would allow municipalities where reality shows are filmed to license TV production companies and charge them for fees incurred by police and officials who deal with traffic jams and crowd-control issues during filming.
A reality check
When it comes to problems with reality shows, which now make up 41 percent of prime-time programming, congestion and public safety are just the tip of the iceberg. Also of huge concern is the filming of children in the episodes.
While federal law regulates how many hours and in what occupations children under 16 can work, the law expressly exempts children employed as performers. States are expected to pick up the slack by requiring things like work permits and restricting how many hours minors may work in a day.
However, only 32 states have such laws and for those that do, reality shows fall into a legal gray area. At least in the eyes of the law, it’s uncertain whether the children filmed can be considered performers since production companies bill their entertainment as “docu-style” filming where the children are “participants” rather than actors.
The children are at risk for further exploitation, say critics, since many production companies resist unionization. The safety nets afforded other child performers, such as a having a union representative or state investigator on set, are often unheard of for kids on reality shows.
More laws needed
As reality TV programming proves to be more than a passing fad, lawmakers are starting to pay attention.
Among them is Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Murt, who introduced House Bill 1548 in response, at least in part, to criticism about the treatment of the eight Gosselin children on the reality show “Kate Plus 8,” which is often filmed at the family’s Pennsylvania home. The bill, signed into law by the Pennsylvania governor in 2012, calls for the following rules around children under 16 on a film set, including a reality TV film set:
- Child performers must have a parent or guardian with them at all times.
- Working hours must be limited to eight per day with wraps by 10 p.m.
- The employer must put at least 15 percent of the child’s gross earnings into a trust fund for the child.
“I wanted to protect the health and financial well-being of child performers, but also wanted to provide reasonable guidelines that film and television producers could follow,” Murt said in a press release.
It’s a start.