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'Ellen' crew furious over lack of communication, pay cut since cororonavirus outbreak

The crew was further incensed by the show's recent hire of an outside, non-union tech company to help DeGeneres tape remotely from her home in California.
Image: Ellen DeGeneres
US comedian Ellen DeGeneres on stage during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2020.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

LOS ANGELES - Crew members from Ellen DeGeneres' long-running daytime talk show are distressed and outraged over their treatment from top producers amid the coronavirus pandemic, numerous insiders affiliated with the series told Variety.

The core stage crew for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," consisting of more than 30 employees, received no written communication about the status of their working hours, pay or inquiries about their mental and physical health from producers for over a month, said two sources, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. Higher-ups in production would occasionally answer phone calls but reveal little, added one of the sources. The crew was further incensed by the show's recent hire of an outside, non-union tech company to help DeGeneres tape remotely from her home in California.

When production executives finally did weigh in, nearly all crew members were told last week to brace for a 60 percent reduction in pay, even as the show continues to air, according to sources close to the matter.

Only four core crew members currently work on the remote version of the broadcast, added insiders, who find this treatment to be totally inconsistent with DeGeneres' daily message to her audiences: "be kind."

A spokesperson for Warner Bros. Television, which distributes the show, told Variety, "Our executive producers and Telepictures are committed to taking care of our staff and crew and have made decisions first and foremost with them in mind." The studio reiterated the crew has been paid consistently, though at reduced hours.

For more than two weeks, from late March through April 9, crew members — from lighting to camera operators to grips — were left in the dark about if and how much they would be paid. Phone calls to crew members from a production coordinator at Telepictures, the Warner Bros. unit that produces "Ellen," were sporadic and often lacking any information before and after the 14-day blackout.

The lack of transparency continued as DeGeneres expanded her output from hosting four shows a week to five, shot over two days, said individuals with knowledge of the schedule. Radio silence from producers created anxiety among crew members who feared they would be furloughed and, in that case, would need to explore unemployment benefits.

A Warner Bros. spokesperson acknowledged that communication could have been better, but cited complications due to the chaos caused by COVID-19.

On April 2, the majority of the crew members were shocked to discover that DeGeneres had a remote set erected at her residence where she was taping, a fact they learned via social media posts from colleagues in other departments, insiders said.

Under normal circumstances, "Ellen" tapes four days a week. Studio episodes of the show were last shot the week of March 9. The crew was last paid in full for the week of March 16, when the Warner Bros. lot was shut down as a precaution to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to the studio. The following week of March 23 was a planned spring break hiatus.

"When returning from break, the crew was paid the week of March 30th despite having no firm plans for production to resume," the spokesperson said. Pay reduced to 8 hours from 10 hours per work day for the week of the 30th, insiders said.

As of April 10, crew was told to expect a reduced compensation of two, 8-hour work days per week. In the hours following Variety's Wednesday request for comment on the reduced pay and lack of communication, word began circulating among crew that they would be restored to their full four-day work weeks. An individual close to Warner Bros. disputed that timeline, saying the crew is paid in arrears and the final hour count had not yet been finalized.

Adding insult to injury, sources said that while most of the crew was left out of work with reduced pay, the remote production has hired Key Code Media, a Burbank-based audiovisual house, to help produce technical elements of the show while crew members with the same skills sit idle. Each of DeGeneres' crew is affiliated with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union.

One local IATSE rep spoke with "Ellen" producers about the crew's concerns the week of April 7, sources said, and reported back that their understanding was that union members would continue to be paid. The union rep advised the crew to "watch closely," one person familiar with the exchange said. An IATSE spokesperson did not immediately comment on the matter. The studio said the third-party hire was cleared with union reps.

"Due to social distancing requirements, technical changes in the way the show is produced had to be made to comply with city ordinances and public health protocols," said a WB spokesperson, adding that no crew member lost a job in the hiring of Key Code.

On her April 7 return to the air, DeGeneres told viewers she "wanted to start doing my new show as soon as possible." The host specifically said it was for "my staff and crew. I love them, I miss them, the best thing I can do to support them is to keep the show on the air."

More upsetting for many crew members is a lack of personal outreach from show leadership to check on longtime employees amid the public health crisis, said sources. The stage crew operates separately from DeGeneres' senior producers, writers and assistants, who occupy her offices in Building 19 on the Burbank Warner lot. Many of the key crew, however, have been with DeGeneres since the taping of the talk show's pilot, which rolled 17 years ago.

Confounded, the "Ellen" crew sought information from colleagues on similar shows, many of whom had opposite experiences from theirs, said sources.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live!" stage hands were paid from host Kimmel's own pocket during initial COVID-19 shutdowns, two insiders familiar with that set told Variety, and since returning to the air network ABC is paying their full rates. "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee," and Showtime's "Desus & Mero" have also all had transparent communication and are paying full rates, sources said. Spokespersons for those individual shows declined to comment on the matter.

"Ellen" is in a different category in TV terms as a daytime franchise in first-run syndication, meaning it is sold by Warner Bros. to TV stations on a market by market basis.

"The creative, delivery, economics, hours, taping times, staff structures, etc. are completely different for a daily talk show," said Warner Bros. DeGeneres is one of the highest-paid stars on television, earning more than $50 million per year from her Telepictures deal. Her total net worth is a reported $330 million.