Among the most popular are action-adventure shows such as the dramatic fishing series "Deadliest Catch" and the Arctic driving drama "Ice Road Truckers," which give viewers an inside glimpse into gritty, hazardous real-life occupations. The number of shows on the air in this category rose from fewer than a dozen five years ago to nearly 60 in 2012, according to Bob Boden, a veteran executive producer and industry analyst.
The element of danger is vital to the marketing campaigns. History's "Outback Hunters," for example, touts the "dangerous work conditions" of hunters who risk "life and limb to hunt crocodiles in the Australian outback." A press release for the cable channel's "Ax Men" promises "mishaps involving falling trees, bone-crushing equipment, razor-sharp cables and human error."
"A lot of these reality shows are … encouraging people to do dangerous acts," said state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who heads the Senate's Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. "If you do that without adequate safety standards, people will get hurt."
Lieu said his staff is investigating possible safety infractions by reality TV shows.
Cast and crew members who work on action-adventure shows are vulnerable for several reasons. Unlike movies and scripted TV programs, reality shows typically rely on members of the public to perform stunts, and often lack designated safety experts with the proper training to prevent accidents. Camera operators are trained to shoot in a cinema verite style, close to the action, often in dangerous locations. And shows operate under tight budgets and schedules that can force crews to work too quickly and make decisions on the fly.
"In a lot of production scenarios, they are not employing people with the right skill sets or doing their due diligence," said Lars Andrews, a Vancouver, Canada, safety consultant and producer who has worked on such shows as "Eco Challenge," "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race." He said the problem is more prevalent on low-budget cable shows, not network shows such as "Survivor."
Producers also sometimes push the limits of safety to capture the most realistic and dramatic footage. "You're put in situations where decisions are made under pressure," Andrews said. "The ball gets rolling. One bad decision leads to another."
Andrews remains haunted by a 2010 incident in which a colleague on a reality program filming in a Venezuelan jungle died of snake bite. Although a paramedic was on the set and the crew had snake venom antidote, the man went into shock and could not be evacuated because it was too late in the day to fly in a helicopter.
"We wanted to get some snake footage. It was the last shot of the day," he said. "Maybe it was not the appropriate time" to shoot the scene, Andrews said.
To be sure, fatal accidents also happen on the sets of scripted films and TV shows. A stuntman was killed in 2011 by an explosion on the set of "The Expendables 2" in Bulgaria. A crew member on the sci-fi series "The X Files" was electrocuted in 2000.
But such incidents have declined sharply since 1982, when star Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed by a helicopter that crashed into them during filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie." The deaths led to scrutiny of safety standards and prompted tougher rules for film crews.
Labor advocates argue that safety would be improved by unionizing shows, providing health insurance benefits and implementing stricter workplace safety rules, such as limiting "turnaround time" so crews get enough rest between shoots that can last up to 20 hours a day.
"It all stems from the race to cut budgets to the bone," said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. "We understand the desire of networks to buy programming at as low a price as possible ... but you have people getting hurt in the field. You need to have safety protections and rational production schedules."
A strong opponent of the union push in action-adventure shows is widely recognized pioneer Thom Beers. A Harley-riding thrill seeker who got his start as an assistant at Turner Broadcasting and went on to produce the hit shows "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Monster Garage," Beers recently bragged that he had just been in Alaska "drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle" with his "Deadliest Catch" fishermen.
While the burly, bearded producer didn't deny that his crews face danger on the job, he insisted that they are aware of the risks — and well compensated. Camera operators typically earn $700 to $1,000 a day on action shows.
"We realize the fact that they are putting their lives in danger, which is why we take care of them," Beers said. "We pay them very, very well, way beyond scale, for what they do."
Although Beers declined to discuss the effort to unionize reality shows, many of his peers say that they couldn't afford to produce their shows if they had to pay health and pension benefits and comply with union work rules.
Doug Stanley, a cinematographer who has won Emmys for his work on "Deadliest Catch" and now runs his own production company, has broken his ribs, gashed his hand and permanently damaged his right knee.
When getting ready to shoot the first season of the show in 2005, Stanley, now 50, tripped and smashed his face into a crab pot. The next morning, with his jaw broken in three places, he boarded the boat for weeks of work in some of the world's roughest seas.
Stanley sees nothing wrong with asking TV workers to perform dangerous tasks as long as they are informed of the hazards involved. Besides, the company behind the show wrote him a check for about $13,000 to cover the injuries from his crab-pot accident.