Working for reality? Sorry

Monday, December 17, 2007
Los Angeles Times

By Scott Collins, Channel Island

PREDICTIONS often come back to haunt the predictor, but this column will go out on a limb anyway: Chances are slim to none that the Writers Guild of America will make good on its vow to organize large numbers of reality-show workers as a result of its current strike.

Unless you're one of the harried wage slaves helping to crack story arcs on, say, "America's Most Smartest Model," that forecast may not sound so earth-shattering. But it has important implications for the 6-week-old strike that's paralyzing large swaths of the entertainment industry.

Reality TV, the amorphous catch-all that includes everything from "Survivor" to "Dancing With the Stars" to "The Hills," has emerged as the unlikely flash point of the work stoppage, and not just because the networks hope that hundreds of hours of unscripted series will serve as substitute programming once the networks' well of comedies and dramas runs bone-dry.

Indeed, a no-holds-barred bid to organize more reality-show writers was a major plank of Patric Verrone's successful campaign to become president of the Writers Guild of America, West, two years ago. Verrone, perceived as a hard-liner, has since become a thorn in the studios' side during the recent negotiations. One key factor in the rancorous breakdown of talks Dec. 7 was the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers' demand that the guild drop its proposal to extend union membership to writers of reality, as well as animated, material.

Allow us to pause for the uninitiated. Reality shows have writers? Wait -- aren't these shows supposed to be unscripted? Don't they just film whatever happens to fly out of the mouth of Flavor Flav or Nicole Richie or Prince Lorenzo Borghese?

Well, not exactly. Many of these programs are "written" in the editing room by "story producers" who string together hours of footage into some sort of recognizable narrative, frequently with little regard for, um, reality. Supposedly spontaneous events are staged or restaged, chronologies adjusted. Editors routinely use "frankenbites," out-of-context quotes that illustrate points the speakers never intended to make. And yes, contestants have been known to claim they were fed lines and told how to react on camera.

(If reading this spoiled anyone's illusions about reality TV, we are very sorry. At least there's still a Santa Claus.)

But back to the strike. When Variety reported in late October -- less than two weeks before the strike started -- that the guild was abandoning its efforts on behalf of unscripted shows, Verrone lashed back with a memo, published on DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com, saying that the union "continues to be committed to organizing reality." And on Nov. 26, the guild issued a blistering report that accused producers of reality shows, most of which make extensive use of nonunion workers, of violating U.S. and California wage and labor laws.

According to the study, which polled 300 reality-TV "writers," 91% reported getting no pay for overtime work, and 86% said they received no health insurance from their employers. More than half said they were ordered to hand in time cards early.

"These are kids who are making a few hundred bucks a week, not guys like me who are making lots of money for doing rewrites," Paul Haggis, a guild member and the writer-director behind the Oscar-winning feature "Crash," told me Friday. Haggis also appeared with Verrone and others at a Dec. 7 rally in Burbank for reality-TV workers' rights. At the rally, Verrone promised listeners that reality-TV jurisdiction "will be in our next contract."

Last year, when writers on the CW's "America's Next Top Model" struck over wages and benefits and sought representation through the WGA, the producers canned them. In October, a California labor agency awarded $35,000 in back pay to a story producer on TBS' "Outback Jack" who was denied overtime (a legal appeal is pending).

And state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), chairwoman of the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, has scheduled hearings for Feb. 1 on the reality-TV labor law issue. "We intend to monitor this situation closely to ensure that reality-TV story producers and other reality-TV employees are paid in accordance to California labor laws," Migden said in a statement.

We wanted to find out what reality producers had to say about all this. Maybe there's some reasonable explanation for why their workers seem so shabbily treated.

So we called up four of the biggest names in the business: Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"), Mark Cronin ("America's Most Smartest Model," "I Love New York 2"), Jonathan Murray ("The Real World," "Keeping Up with the Kardashians") and Bruce Nash ("Meet My Folks," "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?").

Through representatives, all of them declined to say one word.

But wait. It turns out that maybe the guild itself isn't as unyielding on the reality-TV issue as it seemed.

During an interview with the Financial Times published Friday, Verrone told the reporter that there was "room to negotiate" on the reality-TV proposal. That at the very least throws a different light on the guild's supposedly hard-core stance.

This column wanted to ask Verrone exactly what he meant, but a guild spokesperson said he was unavailable (attempts to reach Verrone since Tuesday were likewise unsuccessful).

Haggis, who admitted he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the reality-TV issue, said that Verrone was merely trying to signal to the studios that they "are reasonable human beings . . . everything is negotiable." But he added: "If you ask me, 'Should we give up on reality TV?' No. That's my personal opinion. I think these workers are literally being treated like wage slaves."

But not everyone shares that opinion, even within the guild. And that may explain why Verrone is softening his rhetoric as the pressure to resume talks hits the boiling point. At some point, the guild will almost certainly have to trim its menu of demands to one or two core points. Try to guess which will get dropped sooner, residuals or reality TV.

It's clear, though, that the issue of how reality TV treats its workers isn't going to go away. Because it's mostly nonunion and unregulated, these shows frequently cut corners, and workers who feel they've been treated unfairly have little or no recourse beyond the legal system.

But then, that's talking about airy concepts like social justice, which can easily be kicked down the curb during a costly strike.

So as more and more "below-the-line" Hollywood workers get tossed out of jobs just in time for the holidays, and as the studios and show runners continue to tally up their ghastly losses from the strike, don't count on the guild negotiators going to the mat for folks who frankenbite.