For reality television, this weekend’s Emmy ceremony promises heady and unprecedented attention.
For the Writers Guild of America, scant months from a bitter strike that fought and failed to unionize so-called unscripted programs, the star billing is salt in a wound.
The show will be hosted by five hosts from hit shows including “American Idol” and “Deal or No Deal,” and the emcees are competing in a new category honoring their work. For the first time, a reality-made celebrity — Lauren Conrad of “The Hills” — will be a presenter.
And she and another reality-made star, “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano, are creating gowns for the so-called “trophy girls.”
Emmy organizers point out that the genre has established itself as a popular and vital part of TV and deserves its due, and that the 60th annual ceremony airing on ABC is celebrating television as a whole.
The writers union concedes the point — but says the focus still stings.
“I hesitate to call it an irony so much as an injustice,” said Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West.
When the Emmy hosts, including Jeff Probst (“Survivor”) and Heidi Klum (“Project Runway”), take the stage, their duties on the guild-covered ceremony will include “reading what somebody writes” under WGA contract pay and benefit terms, Verrone said.
“But when the hosts go back to their day job, they will be reading copy where writers don’t get writing credit, much less benefits,” he said.
Tom Bergeron of “Dancing with the Stars” is the sole Emmy host whose series has a WGA-covered writer, according to the guild. The WGA continues to pursue unionization of competition, game and variety programs after making contract gains in new-media compensation.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains for the studios, has maintained its opposition to the guild’s demand for blanket jurisdiction over reality shows. Other unions have made inroads at some reality productions.
Observers may see irony in Sunday’s show: During the 100-day walkout that stopped scripted TV production before ending in February, the guild exercised its muscle by crushing the Golden Globes ceremony and threatening — then sparing — the Academy Awards.
Verrone doesn’t allege industry payback is involved in the Emmys, nor does he find fault with the TV academy. There are no plans to stage a protest at the ceremony, he said.
The guild’s concern is the producers who fight its jurisdiction over reality and animation shows, Verrone said.
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences declined comment, saying the dispute is between the union and studios. Executive producer Ken Ehrlich also declined comment but detailed why reality shows deserves to be center stage.
The genre has been a part of TV since the early game shows, Ehrlich said. With the birth of programs like MTV’s “The Real World” (1992), it has expanded and staked out more and more TV turf.
Taken together, the five Emmy hosts’ shows average about 70 million weekly viewers.
“It just seemed like a perfect way to stay current with the state of television today,” Ehrlich said.
That could be crucial to the ceremony’s ratings. The Emmys, along with other awards shows, has seen viewership slump in recent years, with last year’s telecast watched by the second-smallest Emmy audience on record, just under 13 million.
Who will watch the Emmys?
The Oscars get a ratings boost when a box-office hit like “Titanic” is in the trophy hunt. But the Emmys’ most-nominated series, AMC’s “Mad Men,” has yet to garner an audience to match its critical acclaim: The latest episode drew just under 2 million viewers, compared to the 20 million weekly viewers who routinely watched “American Idol” last season.
Some writers accept or even embrace the idea that reality deserves a place in the annual tribute to TV’s best, including “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.
“I’m a reality TV fan,” Weiner said, with his only criticism that “the Emmys were a little late to come to the party with reality shows.”
“I understand television celebrating something that’s become prime-time’s bread and butter. I’m a sucker for ‘Survivor’ and ‘Beauty and the Geek,”’ said Ron Osborn, whose credits include cable series “Duckman,” out on DVD, and “The West Wing.”
But, Osborn added, writers have been “tremendously hurt by reality.”
Weiner also draws a sharp distinction between respecting the breed and asserting that it employs people who function as writers and deserve guild protection.
“Anybody who thinks those shows aren’t written, whether by editors or writers, is fooling themselves,” he said. “It’s an illusion that they’re just filming what’s happening. Casting directors and editors and nonunion writers are creating stories on paper.”