US: Reality Show Writers Want to Unionize

Publisher Name: 
Orlando Sentinel


LOS ANGELES -- The guild representing Hollywood writers has disclosed
that more than 75 percent of the scribes on TV reality shows have
signed cards asking to be represented by the union.

The campaign sets up a potential showdown with the companies behind such programs as Survivor, The Amazing Race and The Bachelor.

The Writers Guild of America, West, said about 1,000 reality TV
writers, producers and editors out of an estimated 1,300 have requested
since May 7 to join the union. Guild officials said they had sent
letters to all the major production companies asking to negotiate, but
none responded.

Organizing writers on reality TV shows brings to light what has been
one of the proliferating genre's open secrets: that so-called
unscripted shows often are scripted after all.

Behind the scenes of popular reality shows, writers craft game formats,
coach contestants and feed lines to such stars as Paris Hilton in Fox's
The Simple Life.

Writers also splice together comments to create story lines and
manufacture drama. In industry parlance, it's an editing process known
as "Frankenbite."

Because writers are deeply involved in the dozens of reality shows,
union leaders argue, they should get similar pay and benefits as
writers on conventional programs.

"These are issues of justice for these writers," said Daniel Petrie
Jr., president of the WGA, West. He described reality TV as a
"sweatshop" for writers. "We've heard stories of people working three
or four days at a stretch with an hour and a half sleep at night, or
23-hour days in 100-degree heat with no overtime."

J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and
Television Producers, the industry's negotiating arm, disputed the
sweatshop claims.

"I know people in the television business generally work long hours," Counter said. "I'm not aware of any exploitation."

The popularity of Survivor and other reality shows
triggered an explosion of programs on network and cable TV. Production
costs usually are cheaper than network dramas and sitcoms, although the
amount of money paid in licensing fees for shows from such top
producers as Mark Burnett has soared dramatically.

Writers who work on prime-time scripted shows receive a guaranteed
13-week pay of $3,477 a week, plus pension, health and residual
payments. By contrast, those who work in reality shows typically earn
from $700 to $1,200 a week. Unlike other writers, they typically do not
receive pension, health insurance or residuals and usually work for two
to three months per job, according to the guild.

"We're making shows that make these networks millions and we can't
afford a middle-class lifestyle," said Rebecca Hertz, a field producer
who has worked on The Swan for Fox. "We think it's time for that to end."


AMP Section Name:Media & Entertainment
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