Even bad TV has to have writers
LAST MONTH, I attended a news conference in Hollywood at which the Writers Guild of America announced the filing of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 10 former writers for reality TV shows.
These writers were claiming numerous overtime violations, egregious working conditions, time-card falsification and labor abuses normally reserved for orphans in Dickens novels. Ten other writers filed a similar suit in July.The defendants in both lawsuits include ABC, CBS, Fox, the WB, TBS and the production companies behind such hits as “The Bachelor,” “Joe Millionaire,” “Trading Spouses” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”
Three of the plaintiffs gave harrowing accounts of 90- to 120-hour workweeks with no overtime, meal breaks or holidays -- all flagrant violations of California labor laws. For this, they were paid flat salaries of as little as $800 a week, which, if you do the math, averages out to about seven bucks an hour. Their timecards, posted on the Writers Guild website (www.wga.org), feature accounting so surreal you’d think Salvador Dali was in charge of payroll.
These lawsuits are the latest chapter in a tedious saga that’s been going on since “Survivor” first laid waste to prime time five years ago. Since then, the WGA has been trying to unionize reality show writers. The networks and production companies, in turn, fought back with an argument that’s become a cliche: that there are no writers in reality TV.
As proof, the networks first tried to claim that the action on reality shows was completely spontaneous and unscripted. When that argument failed dismally, they qualified it by saying that writing on a reality show -- which involves plotting out story lines, editing interviews and inventing dialogue -- isn’t the same as writing for a scripted series.
In fact, they argued, it isn’t writing at all, and therefore the WGA has no jurisdiction. This is why reality TV writers are given job titles such as story editor, story producer, post-producer or associate producer. I’ve been a reality show writer on and off for five years, and I firmly believe that the networks’ denial that there are writers on reality shows is more than just a way to thwart the Writers Guild’s unionizing efforts. There’s something else behind their sophistry.
The networks think that reality TV is crap. They have no respect for the shows or the people who write them. The people who greenlighted these projects can’t believe that anyone with a shred of dignity or a brain would actually work on them, and they’re damned if they’re going to pay good money for them.
That doesn’t mean they don’t want these shows. Of course they do. Reality shows are cheap, faster to produce than scripted shows and often have a better success rate. But if you pour enough Chivas into them, most network executives probably will admit that they think reality shows are bad (and just about everyone else in Hollywood will agree).
The networks know perfectly well that we’re writers. But to them, we’re hacks. If we were good, they figure, we wouldn’t be working on reality TV. We’d be writing for a quality series like “Stacked.”
Consider how reality shows are made. Let’s say Paris and Nicole milk a cow, which they did on the first season of “The Simple Life.” This is how the creative process works: First, a story producer instructs them to milk the cow as badly as one possibly can (because doing it properly isn’t funny). A field producer then feeds Paris one-liners about bovine lactation. Finally, a post-producer takes the raw footage and writes a detailed script for the editor that maximizes the dairy hilarity. All of this involves writing (although clearly a kind of writing specific to reality TV).
But then, when the network execs see the final product -- two giggling non-actresses yanking on a cow’s teats like deranged bell ringers -- the whole thing looks awful, like something that any moron could dream up. And morons don’t deserve to get paid much.
Maybe they’d think the writers were worth more if Paris and Nicole were reading Anne Sexton poems aloud. Or ruminating on “Appalachian Spring.” But “The Simple Life” is about ditsy heiresses doing time in agrarian purgatory. That’s the show they bought and are making a fortune on. It’s not our fault they think it’s idiotic. We’re just doing our jobs.
I’m quite certain that the networks’ overall loathing of reality TV and the writers who work in it is the motivation behind their steadfast attempts to keep the Writers Guild at bay.
So why do writers work for reality shows? Well, because it’s work. We have rent to pay and stuff to buy. We can’t discriminate. Right now, the dearth of comedies has forced scores of unemployed sitcom writers to apply for jobs on reality shows. (Boy, are you guys in for a surprise.) We’ll do the job that’s required. Just stop punishing us for giving you what you ask for.