WGAW looks to halt reality 'sweatshop'

By Jesse Hiestand and Andrew Wallenstein

WGA West launched a campaign Monday to organize reality television writers, producers and editors in pursuit of better contracts.

Nearly 1,000 of these story producers quietly have signed authorization cards requesting union representation, allowing WGA to demand recognition from more than 70 production outfits, including Bunim-Murray Prods., Bruckheimer Television, Next Entertainment, Nash Entertainment, Endemol Entertainment and Shapiro/Grodner Prods.

So far, none of the companies have offered to negotiate, according to WGAW, prompting the union to take the campaign public and threaten further action, including a strike.

"This is the most aggressive organizing effort the guild has undertaken since its founding," according to WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr. "The secret about reality TV isn't that it's scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21st century telecommunications industry sweatshop."

Working under a union contract would set minimum wages, health and pension contributions and -- perhaps most importantly -- rules on working conditions. An alleged indifference to state and federal overtime laws is a chief union complaint.

"In reality TV you can work 42 days in a row, 18 hours a day, and you will just get your regular paycheck," said Dave Rupel, a WGA organizer and veteran of such series as "Temptation Island" and "Real World." "And with network competition, what normally would be done in six months, they expect you do to it in three months."

But Phil Gurin, a veteran reality producer whose credits include "The Weakest Link," suggested that production companies are not the source of the problem.

"It's not so much independent production companies that have the biggest burden to shoulder; it's the broadcast or cable networks or syndicators that give us money to make shows," he said. "They're the ones that really need to recognize that to get really top-drawer writing, you have to pay for it."

The campaign started a year ago when seven story producers met with WGAW staff after a grueling field session on "Australian Outback." They complained of working without food and water in 100-degree heat and for 30 straight days in one case, according to union organizer David Young.

WGAW invited reality editors to join the campaign in January and, on May 7, about 500 story producers gathered at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills to discuss strategy and start gathering authorization cards.

Union leaders have promised to use innovative tactics in the coming months to pressure production companies, including those owned by conglomerates that are otherwise signatories to WGA contracts.

"These tactics may lead industry executives to accuse us of breaking the 'gentlemen's agreement' that has existed between the talent and studios, but that agreement was broken long ago by the reality producers and the networks that chose to promote nonunion production of these shows," Young said. "You should know as well that as a last resort, we are prepared to lead reality writers and editors out on strike, should they decide to take that step."

Even union officials acknowledge that their use of the term "scripted" in terms of reality TV can be confusing.

Instead of writing dialogue, reality TV writers say they help craft the overall sense of story. According to the union, this includes casting, creating scenarios, conducting field interviews and guiding the postproduction process so hundreds of hours of video end up with a meaningful beginning, middle and end.

For that reason, video editors feel they are equally deserving of WGA coverage.

"These stories come together in post -- stories are pulled out by us, in collaboration of course with storytellers -- but we're in there creating stories so it's a logical conclusion to be part of the Writers Guild," said editor Donna Egan, who also is help> ing organize this campaign. "A lot of it is just about having basic benefits -- health and pension. We have to change the system because the system isn't going to change voluntarily."

Gurin noted that the absence of any uniform division of labor on reality shows only complicates the WGAW's efforts, with so many different people taking on writing duties. "Writing is clear when there's a script, and not all of these shows have a script," he said. "There's a lot of moving parts in this area."

Bertram van Munster, Emmy-winning producer of the CBS reality series "The Amazing Race," took issue with the timing of the guild's position given the history of unscripted television.

"Everyone should be part of the community," he said. "But why should this be an issue now? The reality genre grew out of the writers' strike more than 17 years ago. The reality train left the station a long time ago."

A top reality producer and WGAW member who wished to remain anonymous was critical of WGAW's strategy, questioning its ambition to represent the field producers and editors who have guilds of their own. "They're casting too wide a net," the producer said. "I want them to focus on the writers, get some turf and build out from there. But they're trying to conquer Europe instead of taking it one nation at a time."

The producer also believes WGAW should set its sights on broadcast, not cable, where the budgets are already tight. "If you've got to reduce what small fee you're already getting on these cable shows, you'll have a lot of problems," the source said. "(Broadcast) network shows are where the money is."

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