Lifeguards at odds: Is the department getting a good deal for TV show production?
The Weather Channel’s airing of “Lifeguard! Southern California” may put a heroic spotlight on local lifeguards and showcase San Diego’s pristine beaches and great weather, but lifeguard union spokesman Ed Harris said there are a few downsides to the show that need to be addressed if another round of filming begins this summer.
From overzealous shark hype to distractions from real-life rescues, Harris said the impact of the show on lifeguards and citizens affects the smooth operation of the rescue department, and the lifeguards are simply not getting sufficient compensation for their burden.
The “Lifeguard!” docudrama series features an up-close-and-personal look at the lifesaving men and women of Southern California’s beaches as they conduct rescues and law enforcement measures.
The show is airing its second season, but San Diego lifeguards have also been stars of TruTV’s “Beach Patrol” and “Ocean Force” in previous years before the city was approached by Encino-based LMNO Productions two years ago.
“At first, they wanted to shoot a pilot program, but it ended up being a 13-part series,” said Harris. “There seemed to be a decision made with no contract and no deal. The lifeguards were informed a week or two prior to filming.”
In the first year, lifeguard services received an $8,000 quad runner for its participation. In the second year, LMNO Productions agreed to a $37,446 contractual payment to the city, plus reimbursement totaling $1,641 for labor and equipment use.
Although that revenue reflects the highest negotiated compensation rate of the seven cities featured in the series, Harris said the city signed a poor deal because of soft costs associated with the production, ranging from retakes, film review and liability issues that were not accounted for.
“People don’t like to be filmed when they’re in distress,” Harris said. “You increase your risk of exposure to the filming of very tragic incidents, which could potentially raise liability issues with the city. [Some lifeguard officials are] also concerned that production crews change the way we react to things. It certainly adds stress to the lifeguards who are doing these calls and distracts us from an already dangerous job.”
He said there is also no guarantee that city revenue generated by the production will be used for lifeguard services.
“We have a really skeleton crew patrolling the beaches, and they’ve turned lifeguards into actors,” he said. “It does not make financial sense. They need to cover all costs, eliminate impacts on lifeguard staff and pay the city a fair price.”
While Harris agreed that there are positive aspects to the show like good tourism exposure, there are exceptions when the show focuses heavily on shark attacks that scare off tourists and ocean-oriented businesses or films citizens when they are most vulnerable.
“The problem is the impact on the lifeguards, the impact on the beach for producing it and the lack of funds. It’s not paying for itself,” he said. “We’re not opposed to it if the city wants to do it, but there needs to be some changes to how it’s structured.”
In addition to higher quality and more clandestine production equipment to ease the victims’ comfort level, it needs to make fiscal sense for the city, said Harris.
“No part of our operating budget should be used to support it,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is the fifth year of the show, and it really hasn’t had an impact on us budgetarily and it really hasn’t helped us explain what we do.”
San Diego Lifeguard Services Chief Rick Wurts, however, said the department has had “excellent experiences” with the documentary-based productions and believes the show is successful in educating viewers about the lifeguards’ roles, promoting safety on the beach and identifying how beachgoers can avoid hazards in and around the ocean.
“With both production companies, the department has been very pleased with the way in which our lifeguards were showcased, their level of professionalism and the series in general,” he said. “Our lifeguards have recognized the value of the various TV series as an educational outreach to the public allowing them to see in a graphic visual manner the conditions under which lifeguards work and the challenges they face in their everyday duties.”
Wurts said he also feels the city is getting sufficient compensation monetarily and in terms of other assets like the enhancement of the city’s ability to attract and retain corporate sponsorship and showcase San Diego as a tourist destination.
“During every episode of ‘Lifeguard,’ San Diego’s beaches and bays are prominently featured to hundreds of thousands of viewers. Having the opportunity to feature our beautiful beaches to a national audience has intrinsic value to tourism and supports jobs and the community,” he said.
Wurts and the department’s senior leadership feel they are capitalizing on a rare opportunity to educate a national audience about the key role lifeguards play in the community and display the skill and professionalism of their guards.
“Our partnership with LMNO Productions educates the public on the value that lifeguards provide to the community and replaces negative notions and stereotypes about the role of lifeguards with the image of professionalism,” he said.
Regarding allegations of safety concerns, Wurts said his guards have absolute veto power if they believe the film crew will complicate a scene, increase the risk of a rescue or act as an obstacle in any way. In such scenarios, the lifeguard can direct the cameraperson, citizen or other film crew personnel to back off or discontinue filming.
“At all times during the filming of the TV series, the production company was strictly supervised by a designated lifeguard officer,” said Wurts. “Both the lifeguards and the production company staff were briefed regarding the absolute need for the film crew to provide appropriate space to the public and our personnel.”
While he admits that each lifeguard and citizen has varying levels of comfort and tolerance while being filmed, he said it is no different than when local TV news crews or members of the public film public safety personnel during the course of their duties.
“It’s no secret that we’re living in a YouTube world by virtue that almost every person over a certain age has the ability to video public events,” he said. “Within the department, there is an expectation of emergency skills expertise and professional conduct under all conditions.”
Lifeguards are not currently in negotiations with the production company for a new round of shows, said Wurts. However, if the show returns for another season, a contract would have to be approved by the mayor before any filming can begin.
Should the production company decide to return this summer, Harris said he hopes the lifeguards get a better deal for their trouble. Otherwise, the show is simply not worth doing, he said.
“I agreed to do it because they told us we were getting money, and we didn’t get money,” he said. “Now, most of us are over it. The lifeguard union is opposed to it. We did it for free. You put us on your website. We’ve done the whole deal. We’re done.”