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Reality show ‘writers’ want to unionize

Writers craft story lines out of hundreds of hours of footage
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a push to win union wages and benefits from producers, Hollywood writers are revealing one of the industry’s secrets: Television reality shows are often as carefully scripted as any sitcom or crime drama.

The Writers Guild of America, west, is demanding that companies that produce shows such as “The Apprentice” and “Supernanny” provide union wages and benefits to people who sift through hundreds of hours of footage to craft story lines.

The WGA claims reality shows have become cash cows for the networks in large part because producers don’t have to pay union wages and benefits.

The union says people who work on the shows are forced to put in long hours without days off and in some cases placed in dangerous conditions.

“They want to keep the fiction that it’s not written so they don’t have to pay us what they pay fiction writers,” said Rebecca Hertz, a 28-year-old writer who has worked on shows such as “The Swan” on Fox and “Big Man on Campus” on the WB.

The WGA said it has received nearly 1,000 signed cards from reality TV workers requesting representation by the union.

Unlike a sitcom or drama, a reality show doesn’t often employ “writers.” Instead, people with titles such a “field producer” or “story producer” make sure each episode follows a script that’s often conceived in advance.

In other cases, editors have the job of finding dramatic story lines in hundreds of hours of tape. Producers might boil down 400 hours of footage to create a single 44-minute episode of a show, said Jeff Bartsch, a 26-year-old editor.

“Audiences want to see conflict and resolution. They want to see a progression, to see the characters learn something,” he said.

That process, argues the WGA, is called writing.

Writers, as well as directors and editors, have been pushing producers for years to pay union wages and benefits on reality shows. The WGA won a provision in the three-year contract it reached last year to negotiate with producers on a show-by-show basis for representation.

The guild said it decided to mount a public campaign for industrywide representation instead after finding no support for a more piecemeal approach.

Editors and writers pointed out that even if they successfully won benefits on one show, they would have to wage the fight all over again on others.

“This one-by-one strategy, which we call the ‘whack-a-mole approach,’ just doesn’t work for the people and they are not willing to struggle on that basis,” said David Young, the WGA’s director of organizing.

This month, the WGA sent letters to reality show producers demanding union recognition. The WGA said it was willing to call a strike if producers don’t negotiate.

It’s a strategy producers say may backfire.

“It’s an unfortunate tactic,” said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “It’s directly contrary to what they agreed to.”

Counter said the organizing campaign also places reality show producers in an awkward situation because some of the workers the WGA is trying to sign up are already represented by the Directors Guild of America or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The conflicting demands for recognition would have to be resolved by the National Labor Relations Board — a process that could take years.

Bartsch said much of the action in reality shows is staged. In some cases, producers find cast members who fit predetermined “roles” or personality types, ask leading questions to get the answers the script demands or even splice together pieces of conversation to create desired dialogue — something known as “Frankenbites,” Bartsch said.

For example, he said, a producer might take a cast member saying “I can’t stand the dinner they served tonight” on one day and combine it with that person saying another character’s name on a different day to come up with the statement “I can’t stand Suzy.”

“It varies as to the scruples of the company, how true they remain to the intent of the character and the story,” Bartsch said.

Calls to several reality TV producers seeking comment were not immediately returned.