The Underpaid Grunts of TV Talk Show Land

The smiling, screaming audience on your favorite daytime show might not be so ecstatic after all.

The Underpaid Grunts of TV Talk Show Land

Call time at the Paramount Studios is seven a.m., and I arrive thirty minutes early for my latest freelance adventure: “working” as a paid audience member for “The Doctors,” a syndicated talk show featuring physicians discussing health and medical issues that people are often embarrassed to talk about.

Following the hiring agency’s instructions to avoid elaborately patterned clothing, jeans and the color white, I am wearing black pants, a formal red sweater and high heels, and I left my cell phone at home, as mandated.

Agencies like this one put out regular calls for paid audience members for court shows, game shows, sitcoms and talk shows. Their client list has included “The Singing Bee,” “The Steve Harvey Show,” “The Weakest Link,” “The Newlywed Game,” “The Montel Williams Show” and dozens of others that you might stumble upon in the course of a lazy afternoon on the couch.

I am the first one to arrive, but within fifteen minutes the line stretches all the way from the studio gate down the street. A chubby woman in a black dress starts to call out names. Her presence takes me back to my days in elementary school when the teacher checked attendance. Purses, pockets and jackets are searched before we make that final step into the studio.

I have been promised nine dollars an hour to clap, smile, sit, stand up and cheer when told to do so. This is the unglamorous little secret of Hollywood: Not everyone in the studio audience of your favorite show is happy to be there, despite their attempts at genuine smiles. Many audience members are happy if they walk away with fifty dollars in their hands, though most do not. Some who accept the job are just scraping by, including immigrants, many of whom rely on this quick cash to make ends meet.

This is the case of Shoko Watanabe, the thirty-year-old Japanese woman sitting next to me five rows back from the front, who later tells me: “My boyfriend and I live in a rental van, a U-Haul, in Hollywood, so coming to the shows is convenient for me.”

Watanabe is just over five feet tall, has long dark straight hair and is wearing a dark jacket and a dark skirt over her knees. She and her now ex-boyfriend were evicted from their apartment, and he rented a U-Haul van using her name and social security number and put much of their belongings into storage. Watanabe has long relied on audience work to get by, sometimes arriving at shows without taking showers, she tells me, blushing. “But I always managed to look good enough.”

The world of audience work is hierarchically organized: The regulars are often told to stay and work the next show. They are known as the “seniors,” whereas the newbies, like me, are usually sent home after the first taping.

“The Doctors” has one of the highest paying rates for female audience members in Los Angeles: nine dollars an hour. Some shows or recruiting agencies pay eight dollars and no overtime, some pay seven, and others pay fifty bucks for nine hours of work — less than nine dollars per hour (California’s minimum wage).

It’s almost unbearable at times to pretend to enjoy the show. Not only is it too early in the morning to hear about people’s genital warts or bad breath, but it is difficult to smile and keep clapping when I want to pee and I am told to hold it in.

“The Doctors,” one of the shows on which the author served as an audience worker.

The main host is Dr. Travis Stork, a handsome emergency physician with fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, best known for appearing on ABC’s “The Bachelor” as the bachelor. With a smile he introduces today’s first guest, an attractive lady with dark, long hair and wearing a dressy fuchsia jacket. She explains that something in her eye has been bothering her for a while now. A minute later, she gets a diagnosis: a stye, a bump that develops when an oil gland at the edge of an eyelid becomes infected. The three other doctors go on for several minutes discussing the best ways for women to prevent this uncomfortable medical problem. Their rather unexciting take-home message: “Avoid makeup” in general, but especially when the stye is still in the eyelid.

Two hours into the taping, one of the audience coordinators suddenly asks me to leave the studio and stay put in a semi-deserted, semi-dark hallway. Minutes later, two other young women join me there. Apparently, the studio needed our seats for guests who were standing up and scheduled to appear at some point in the show. After going to the bathroom, I find myself sitting in a dirty brown chair for the next few hours, near a box of energy bars. I am tired, bored to death and looking forward to the lunch break.

Watanabe and I grab a bite in a nearby fast-food Greek restaurant and then return to the studio. The chubby woman checking in audience members informs us that she only needs six out of the initial twelve of us for the next show. Though we had signed up for eight hours of work, Watanabe and I are dismissed without further explanation and paid in cash for six hours.

We walk away with fifty-six dollars each for six hours of work, plus one unpaid lunch hour of souvlaki and greasy french fries.

At the beginning of 2011, Watanabe’s bills were piling up, rent was overdue, and she found herself browsing Craigslist in search of a job. That’s when she discovered audience work.

“I was in such a terrible situation that whatever job I had I would appreciate it,” she says.

She had first arrived in the U.S. from Niigata, Japan, in 2005, on a vacation. After visiting relatives in Florida, she went on a trip around the U.S., ending up at Union Station in Los Angeles. Soon after, she decided to stay in the country and enroll in English classes. But deep down, she wanted to become an actress. She found herself party-hopping and mingling with peculiar characters in the entertainment industry. Finally, her networking seemed to lead her to the right person: a fifty-year-old man living in Hollywood who told her he had contacts throughout the industry.

“At the time, I needed help from someone who had the knowledge to help me break into my career,” Watanabe explains. “He seemed to be that person.”

He took her to red carpet events and movie parties, but the money was nowhere to be found. “We did not work. He knew a lot of people from the industry, but nobody believed in his ideas anymore,” she recalls.

For the next two years, Watanabe turned to paid audience work as a financial means to support her broke boyfriend and herself. She attended different shows broadcast on networks across the U.S. and even tried to sign her boyfriend up to get paid along with her. But shows like “The Doctors” preferred women, she says, “so I went to the show on my own.”

After her ex was arrested for shoplifting, Watanabe left all of her belongings behind, grabbed her little dog, a Shih Tzu and bichon mix named Imoko, and moved in with a friend.

“I felt like going from prison to freedom when I was doing audience work,” Watanabe says, despite the forced facial expressions and substandard labor conditions she says she endured.

“Audience work was horrible,” she says now. “They kept an eye on all of us, we couldn’t move, we had to bring our own lunch. There was no freedom.”

But in the midst of a draining personal relationship that was making her miserable, Watanabe sought audience work to escape her problems.

“It was like therapy for me because for many hours I did not have to deal with him,” she says.

Dynette Streich, a forty-something woman from Nebraska who wanted to break into the acting world, confessed to me once: “I would die if my friends saw me working on ‘Judge Judy.’”

And so it goes for many people I met working in the audience for more than two months, in studios all across Los Angeles, and for shows ranging from the “The Doctors” and “12 Corazones” to “Take it all,” “Judge Joe Brown” and “The Jeff Probst Show.”

In the world’s capital of entertainment, an industry that generates $43 billion in salaries in L.A. County alone, I discovered that audience work, in comparison to other jobs, lacks proper regulation, leaving the door open to precarious and abusive labor conditions. Although a few recruiting agencies would pay minimum wage and overtime, most would not. Still, the workers turn up, day after day, taping after taping, smile after smile.

A few days after my first gig, I find myself spending time with another audience worker, Jordi Lluch. He lives in a motel two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard and pays about $200 per week. But every three weeks, motel policy requires him to move out for a few days before he is allowed to come back again. He shares a common bathroom with other temporary residents at the motel and heats up his food on a tiny metal stove that he bought for eight dollars in a pawn shop. “I know…it is pretty sad,” he says.

Sweat is coming down his forehead by the time he enters his room and takes off the uncomfortable looking costume that he has been wearing for two hours under the California heat (a black cape, hat and a mask that covers his eyes). Besides working in television studios, Lluch, a thin, twenty-nine-year-old mustachioed immigrant from Spain who wears his dark hair in a ponytail, spends time playing El Zorro on the streets of L.A. to earn tips from tourists. When the summer heat is unbearable, he goes indoors to act as if he’s having the time of his life. On this day, he puts on a formal shirt and dark pants and makes his way to a Van Nuys television studio.

Lluch sits in the audience of “12 Corazones,” which is broadcast on Telemundo. In it, four men try to conquer the heart of one of the eight provocatively dressed female contestants who sit across from them on the main stage by shouting comments about the women’s attractiveness and physical appearance. The women reply by pointing out their soon-to-be partners’ allure or lack thereof.

The audience is comprised of twenty men and twenty women whose job is to yell, clap and cheer. The women are repeatedly instructed to apply lipstick, look good for the camera and be as loud as they possibly can by screaming and pretending to be desperately attracted to the male contestants. They’re to act like they want the men, even if they find them repulsive. “Mamacito, cásate conmigo!” shouts one lady, begging a male contestant to marry her.

This “live performance” is such an integral part of the show that if the female audience members do not behave as expected, they are warned that they may never be called in again. Although not to the same extent as the women, men in the audience are also required to holler about the female contestants’ attractiveness to make the show appear more exciting to TV viewers. “Vuelta, vuelta!”, they shout, demanding the female contestants to turn around and shake their bodies as music plays in the background.

As I sit there watching this sordid spectacle unfold, I cannot help but feel ashamed, especially when I become aware of the multiple television cameras immortalizing my facial gestures.

About three hours into the taping, the production crew announces the first of the day’s two breaks. Contestants and audience members head out of the studio and gather around the eating area to get a drink and a snack, usually a hot dog or a Hot Pocket.

Next to Lluch is a Mexican immigrant whose work permit has expired. His name is Enrique, but as with many audience workers, he does not want to reveal his full identity out of fear that he may be reported to the immigration authorities and get deported. He is clearly unhappy with the disorganization of the audience coordinator and how she chooses the audience members for each show.

“I don’t have anything good to say,” he says in Spanish. “The other day I had confirmed attendance and she almost left me out of the show.”

Most female audience members are in their twenties. I notice one of them, a young Mexican mother who has rushed home and brought her baby to the studio during the forty-minute break. For her, the fifty dollars she will get for nine or more hours of work may be the difference between meeting her bills at month’s end or not.

Soon I discover that several audience members in this show don’t have papers, as they are willing to confess to me. But while the audience coordinator requests a form of ID before the beginning of each taping, she tells us in a casual way that it need not be authentic for her to accept it. “It is okay if the ID is from La Placita Olvera,” she says referring to MacArthur Park, popularly known as the place in Los Angeles where undocumented immigrants can purchase a fake ID or social security card. She never says why she is willing to overlook fakes, but my guess is that undocumented immigrants are less likely to bring complaints against abusive employment practices than those who are legally in the country.

Soon, the heat in the studio becomes difficult to deal with, as the producers keep the air conditioner off to prevent the noise from disturbing the taping.

I contacted the audience coordinator regarding the working conditions during the show, but to date, she has not responded, nor have the NBC network, Telemundo or SAG-AFTRA, the actors union. Branigan Robertson, an employment attorney with offices in Orange County, explained to me in an email that “an ‘employee’ is guaranteed certain minimum rights defined by the California Labor Code (such as minimum wage, breaks, and overtime pay). However, an ‘independent contractor’ is not guaranteed such rights. Employers often break the law and abuse workers by misclassifying them as independent contractors when they should be employees.

Robertson added that audience workers fall within a gray area between the two classifications but that the argument for employee status is stronger. “Audience members are subject to the complete control of the employer, they utilize no special skills, they do not invest in equipment or tools, and their opportunity for profit or loss does not depend on their skills,” he told me. “Therefore, they should be an employee, subject to all protections of minimum wage, meals, rest breaks, overtime pay, etc.”

About one hour before the taping of “12 Corazones” is over, the audience coordinator approaches the audience members and gives a fifty dollar bill to each worker. Everyone looks happy and relieved that the day is over. Outside the studio, workers are starting to pile up. While some are waiting for their car rides, others rush to the nearby bus stop in the hopes of catching the last ride home. But it is five minutes past eleven p.m., and some may not make it in time.

Lluch walks fast for fifteen minutes until he gets to the stop several blocks away. When the bus lights finally appear in the dark valley night, he sighs and reaches into his pocket to get some change. The two-hour trip back home has just begun. He will still have to catch the subway to make it back to his motel room.