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June 23, 2005

Analysis: Writers Guild hopes to organize reality show workers

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And our business news this morning begins with people who write reality TV. The Writers Guild of America has launched a campaign to organize producers and editors who create reality TV programming. The Guild says the supposedly spontaneous programs are, in fact, shaped by people who function as writers, and they deserve union wages and benefits. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Dave Rupel is a veteran of reality shows, including Big Brother and Temptation Island. He says it's not uncommon to work long hours, seven days a week, with absolutely no benefits.

Mr. DAVE RUPEL (Reality Show Veteran): I guess my worst one was on Temptation Island. I don't know. I think I'd worked about 45 days in a row. I remember when I was driving to the office on Thanksgiving, and I stopped at Burger King to get my meal. While granted, I normally love Burger King, I don't particularly want it on Thanksgiving. That was when I sort of had my revelation. I'm like, you know, this is crazy.

MASTERS: Reality producers say everyone works hard, but Rupel is not alone in his discontent. He's one of a thousand reality show workers who have signed up seeking Writers Guild representation. It's a move that might benefit the workers and boost the Guild's clout. When writers negotiated with producers last year, their union didn't have a lot of muscle to flex. That would change if the Guild also represented those who work on reality shows, now a significant part of television programming.

But big studios and production companies question whether those who shape unscripted shows are really writers. Jon Murray is a partner in Bunim/Murray, the company that produces The Real World and The Simple Life with Paris Hilton.

(Soundbite of reality show)

Unidentified Woman: Do you make diamond or pearl necklaces for dogs?

(Soundbite of bell! )

MASTERS: Jon Murray won't comment on the current organizing effort, but when the union brought the issue up last year, he said his company treated its workers well, and, he said, he considers his employees to be storytellers but not necessarily writers. His staff selects the cast and collects footage of the interactions that ensue.

Mr. JON MURRAY (Bunim/Murray): We then look at that material and decide how to put together an episode. There are story decisions. Does that mean they're writers? I suppose if you want to call them writers, you can. They're not writing dialogue.

MASTERS: Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the Writers Guild of America, West, says that's not the point.

Mr. DANIEL PETRIE Jr. (President, Writers Guild of America, West): Dialogue is not the only thing that writers do. What matters is the story, the conflict, the characters.

MASTERS: Reality show veteran Dave Rupel says if you just followed the biggest star in the reality genre with a camera, you'd be bored.

Mr. RUPEL: But if you whittle it down into a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you know, has character development, all those things people expect whether they read a book or they go to a movie or they watch a scripted TV show, we do the same thing.

MASTERS: But the studios and major production companies say this isn't just about definitions. Nick Counter is president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. He says the question of Guild representation was settled in last year's bargaining when it was agreed that the issue would be decided on a program-by-program basis.

Mr. NICK COUNTER (President, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers): Needless to say, the companies that I've talked to, their representatives are quite up in arms about this, because it's a fundamental breach of the good-faith discussions they had had with the Guild.

MASTERS: The Writers Guild says that wasn't the deal, and Daniel Petrie says it isn't practical.

Mr. PETRIE: It's very difficult in a freelance industry like ours to go show by show when you can spend a year and a half organizing a job that lasts for three months.

MASTERS: This issue is likely to drag on a lot longer than three months, and given the contentious nature of the dispute, it could make for a pretty decent reality show itself.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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