A New Orleans EMS ambulance at Tulane Medical Center. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans announced earlier this month that a reality TV show called “Nightwatch,” which follows New Orleans emergency medical technicians working the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, has resumed filming here following a three-year hiatus. The show, which airs on A&E, began filming several weeks ago, and will continue through at least the end of the year. 

“It’s an honor to feature our outstanding healthcare providers who have given so much of themselves this year,” said city of New Orleans EMS Director Dr. Emily Nichols.  

The announcement comes as similar emergency response reality shows face scrutiny across the country. “Cops,” the longest-running such show, and the model for many successors, was cancelled in the US this year after years of complaints that it turned poverty and drug addiction into a spectator sport.

Both A&E and the producers of “Nightwatch” have faced complaints about invasions of privacy and exploitation in other cities and on other reality shows. Now, COVID-19 adds another layer of concern for the production, since crew members, in some cases, may be in close contact with patients.

“Nightwatch” production company 44 Blue Productions signed an earlier contract with the city in 2013, and the first two seasons were filmed in New Orleans. But in 2015, another show from 44 Blue Productions became entangled in a triple murder prosecution.

Lawyers for Shawn Peterson, who was later sentenced to 80 years in prison for the death of his ex-girlfriend, her daughter, and the couple’s son, alleged that “The First 48,” which embedded with NOPD’s homicide unit and was also produced by 44 Blue, had withheld footage that would have benefitted the defense.

Their complaint was thrown out, but shortly afterward, the city ended contracts with both “The First 48” and “NightWatch,” citing a need to “ensure that all of our available time and resources are focused on fighting crime.”

At the time, Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White, who presided over the case, ruled that the footage was not improperly withheld. But she still acknowledged that the show had complicated the case. (The defendant ultimately took a deal, pleading guilty to one count of manslaughter.)

“I wish that the city would never contract with ‘The First 48,’ and I hope in the future they would think through that,” White said, according to a report in The Times-Picayune. 

In the years since, “Nightwatch” began filming in Baton Rouge.

Open questions about privacy and reality TV

“Nightwatch’s” new contract with the city gives the production company permission to “film/tape all the activities of [New Orleans’] various departments … and at their locations and offices including its personnel.”

While previous contracts between the city and 44 Blue Productions stipulated that the show focus on EMS employees, this one simply says that “the Footage will focus on the activities of the City Employees,” including the police, fire department, and EMS.

Previous episodes of “Nightwatch” have involved victims of stabbings, shootings, and overdoses, raising the possibility that cameras will capture footage relevant to another criminal trial.

In St. Louis, another A&E reality show that follows firefighters and paramedics, “Live Rescue,” has faced complaints about invasive cameras. Criminal justice advocates in Sacramento have also described Live Rescue, which films across the country, as “trauma porn.”

And a 2019 investigation by the Sacramento Bee into another 44 Blue Productions show raised questions of whether fights in a county jail were allowed to take place for the benefit of the cameras.

“The sheriff’s department chose to enforce rules strategically while the producers filmed,” the investigation alleged. 44 Blue Productions did not comment on the story at the time, and did not answer questions about it from the Lens.

“Nightwatch’s” contract states that 44 Blue Productions “is responsible for obtaining all necessary consents including the written consent of City Employees, patients, and all others included,” and specifically mentions patient consent required by federal privacy laws. The contract indemnifies the city from lawsuits or other claims arising from privacy violations.

“[EMS leadership] will monitor for and mitigate any potential interference,” Lt. Jonathan Fourcade, a spokesperson for the EMS, wrote over email. “All involved parties understand that patient care and well-being come first.”

In 2015, an artist named Jacqueline Groves told The Times Picayune about being filmed by “Nightwatch” in the back of an ambulance after being hit by a driver and left with a concussion. Groves, who goes by the name Jacq Groves and uses the gender-neutral pronouns them/they, according to their website, did not respond to a request for comment.

Groves did not give the show permission to film, according to the newspaper report, so their face was blurred in the show as broadcast. However, an EMT described the circumstances of the crash, and the details of Groves’ injury, which made them readily identifiable.

“Consent is required prior to release of any footage,” Fourcade told The Lens. 

Riding along on the front lines

City leaders, including at the EMS, have praised “Nightwatch” for giving the public a firsthand look at the work of EMTs that might otherwise be overlooked. But that up-close view means that now, the show’s crew will be working close to EMTs and sick patients in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.

The production resumes as the city braces for a surge in COVID-19 cases over the winter. In the spring, the initial wave of cases led to a 25 percent increase in call volume, and a 25 percent decrease in staff available as EMTs fell ill.

In response to a question about whether “NIghtwatch” crew could enter ambulances, Fourcade acknowledged that both camera operators and fixed cameras could be in ambulances. But in a Thursday morning email, after this story was originally published, Rasha Drachkovitch, the show’s executive producer, said that putting crew members into ambulances would be “highly unlikely due to confined space risks for exposure to COVID,” especially now that cases have been rising in the city.

EMS leadership has the right to review both rough and final cuts of episodes, and can “request modification” of content. However, in most cases that don’t involve footage of confidential informants, 44 Blue appears to have final say, and is only required to “consider modifying identified content.”

Fourcade directed other questions about COVID protocols to 44 Blue Productions, saying that “we work together to develop [protocols.]”

“From what I understand, [the show’s employees] are not going on any of the critical calls that sound like they may be COVID-related,” he said. 

Earlier this week, Drachkovitch provided a statement regarding the show’s COVID precautions, noting that “the crew are equipped with PPE (N95 masks, face shields, gloves, disposable gowns, and hand sanitizer). The staff is tested 3 times a week. The series has a dedicated COVID Compliance Officer from the well-known production and risk management company, Global Film Solutions” who will oversee social distancing and other guidelines.

City employees to assist production

While the city contributes no direct funding to the show, the contract allows 44 Blue to “utilize assistance of authorized {New Orleans Emergency Medical Services} personnel for the production.” According to Fourcade, two employees will also be designated to coordinate access needs for the show, with the time commitment varying week-by-week.

During the show’s first three seasons, in 2014 to 2016, it was given a total of $1.6 million in Louisiana Economic Development tax credits according to LED spokesperson Ron Thibodaux. It also received $180,000 in tax breaks in 2018. There is no record of it receiving a tax credit for this season’s filming.

Currently, employees with the EMS service, along with other city employees, are taking a single furlough day every two weeks to cut costs. Nichols, the EMS director, told the city council on Monday that those furloughs have reduced the number of available ambulances by one or two out of about 20 total. The mayor’s proposed budget for 2021 outlines permanent staffing cuts to the EMS.

However, wrote Fourcade, “The production company will contribute to the city at the end of filming for expenses outside of normal operations and directly related to filming. This amount will be calculated at the end of the filming period.”

This story has been updated to include an additional comment from “Nightwatch” executive producer Rasha Drachkovitch.