The guild representing Hollywood writers disclosed Monday that more than 75% 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 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 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.”
Dave Rupel has worked on such reality shows as “Big Brother” and “Temptation Island,” as well as such scripted dramas as “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “In the Heat of the Night.” He said the skill set was similar.
“People who tune into a reality show expect a beginning, middle and an end,” he said. “We’re storytellers, and we should get the same benefits.”
The guild, which began organizing the writers a year ago, said it went public with its campaign after major production companies ignored its demand for recognition.
Counter said that the guild did not have legal authority to seek recognition from the companies because some of the workers already are represented by other unions, including the Directors Guild of America and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
But Cheryl Rhoden, the guild’s assistant executive director, said people who signed the authorization cards were not represented by other unions.
“We absolutely have legal authority to pursue representation for these men and women, " she said.