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Writers Guild tries to get real

Times Staff Writer

Continuing its attempt to organize scribes who work in reality TV, the Writers Guild of America, West, has launched a campaign targeting the hit Fox TV show “American Idol.”

Calling it “The American Idol Truth Tour,” the guild is aiming squarely at Burbank-based Fremantle Media North America, a major producer of reality programming.

Starting today in Daly City, Calif., about 50 reality TV writers and supporters will stage a series of protests in cities where “American Idol” holds auditions to highlight what they describe as the poor treatment of writers in the reality TV industry.

“Time cards have been filled out often illegally, people are being asked to work through their lunch breaks . . . and work 15- to 20-hour days, frequently seven days a week,” said David Weiss, vice president of the Writers Guild of America, West, at a rally outside the guild’s Los Angeles headquarters.

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A Fremantle spokesman declined to comment.

The tour marks the latest tactic by the Writers Guild to extend union benefits to writers in the burgeoning reality TV and game show sector. Guild leaders contend that writers are pivotal to such shows and deserve the same protections as their peers. Producers argue that writers act more as editors and producers and have denied creating sweatshop conditions.

The union has backed high-profile lawsuits against reality show producers, which are pending; led an unsuccessful strike against the producers of “America’s Next Top Model”; and later helped workers file complaints with the state alleging various wage and hour violations, many of which have been settled.

Now the union is targeting one of the biggest players in the business. A subsidiary of London-based Fremantle Media, the company’s prime-time programs include “Million Dollar Password,” “Farmer Wants a Wife” and “America’s Got Talent.”

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Late last year, the guild protested outside Fremantle’s offices after unsuccessful efforts to represent writers on the game show “Temptation.” And in April, the guild helped nine former Fremantle employees file more than $250,000 in wage and hour claims with the state.

Whether the latest tactics will work is unclear. But the guild has drawn support from Teamsters Local 399, which aims to represent drivers on “American Idol.”

In a letter to members this week, guild President Patric M. Verrone said the union had for the first time “opened dialogue with some of the major nonunion reality and game show production companies.” The guild, he said, recently signed a deal with another major reality TV producer, Mark Burnett Productions, for the prime-time show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”

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richard.verrier@latimes.com


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