June 29, 2005

Union Plans to File Suit for Reality TV Workers


LOS ANGELES, June 28 - In the end, it wasn't the 18-hour days, the job instability, the lack of health care or pension benefits that sent Todd Sharp, a 44-year-old Hollywood writer, into the arms of a labor union. In the end, it was the missing loggers.

The reality-show producer, responsible for coming up with a story line for a one-hour episode of the ABC series "The Bachelor" this year, found that the production had eliminated the low-level clerks, called loggers, who catalogue the contents of hundreds of hours of video taken of the contestants.

"They were trying to save money," said Mr. Sharp, who said he subsequently had to wade through the tapes himself and try to remember where the most interesting moments lay. Editors stitched it all together to create the show. "It's definitely getting worse," he said.

Mr. Sharp is one of nearly 1,000 writers, editors and producers who have signed with the Writers Guild of America, West, to try to force reality production companies and the networks that present the shows to negotiate a union contract. As inducement, guild officials said they would file a lawsuit next week against some networks and production companies, charging breach of California's overtime laws.

While the reality genre has matured, creating shows that commonly compete in the ratings with scripted entertainment, conditions for those who work on the shows have worsened, not improved, those workers say. Although the most popular reality shows compete with scripted entertainment, the genre remains a seat-of-the-pants culture, with some shows taking only weeks, rather than months, to be bought, produced and appear on the air.

This has made for intense competition among reality-show producers. Budgets and shooting schedules are being squeezed by the networks, producers say. And the burden, say those who work on the shows, is falling on them.

"It's the Wal-Mart model," Mr. Sharp said. "The networks offer a low amount of money, and if one production company can't do it, they'll go to another production company. And it's all coming down on us."
ABC declined to comment for this article, as did the other major networks. Mike Fleiss, whose company, Next Entertainment, produces "The Bachelor," also declined comment, as did all other reality show producers contacted. The production companies themselves have not organized into an association of any kind.
J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who negotiates with the unions on other labor matters, said the issue was not a simple one. Because the reality genre was so diverse, ranging from bare-bones shows like MTV's fantasy-fulfillment program "Made" and Fox's ratings behemoth "American Idol," it was impossible to come up with standards to apply across the industry, he said.

"My point of view is this has to be handled on a production by production basis," Mr. Counter said, adding that this was the course agreed upon by the networks and the Writers Guild during their negotiations last year. A guild official responded that the production companies have ignored their formal requests for negotiations.

Working on a show-by-show basis, the Directors Guild of America has struck agreement with about 35 reality shows, but an official declined to disclose the names of the shows. "Part of our approach to working with producers is in not going public with the deals that we have," said Warren Adler, national executive director for that union. "It's our job to help them make the transition to becoming an organized industry."

Mr. Counter added that reality workers shouldn't complain. "A lot of people in this country would love to have the work these people are doing, and the rates of pay that they receive, millions of people," he said. "Sports people work long hours. News people work long hours. It's a business that basically adjusts to the needs of production, and hopefully people get time off later."

But that's exactly what editors and producers in the reality genre say that they do not get. On scripted shows, they said, writers work abnormally long hours during the year, but have long hiatuses between seasons. And their compensation is commonly twice what reality show producers - the people who devise the story lines, but who are rarely called "writers" in the credits - earn.

Salaries for producers and editors on reality shows vary widely, and often depend on the production company, though network shows tend to pay more than cable. One show may offer $2,500 a week for a field producer, while another may offer $1,600 a week. By comparison, the minimum guild rate for a writer on a prime-time, 13-week scripted show is $3,477 per week.

"What I found almost from the beginning is this across-the-board fury about the circumstances people got into," said David Young, organizing director for the Writers Guild, who has been working on the issue for a year. "It's a burnout lifestyle. Sometimes it pays O.K., a lot of times it doesn't. There are no benefits. It requires people to work on compressed schedules. Something will be supposed to take 16 to 20 weeks, and then they hear, 'The network wants it in 12 weeks.' "

Interviews with numerous editors and producers reflected similar complaints. David Rupel, a veteran reality producer of shows from "Temptation Island" to "Big Brother," recalled that in 2003, NBC would extend the length of the show at the last minute on "Meet My Folks."

"A week before they would say, 'We want you to be 90 minutes,' and you'd have to work seven days a week to do that," he said. "But my paycheck didn't change. They think of us as filler. You'd never call John Wells a week before 'ER' and say, 'We want it to be 90 minutes.' " Mr. Wells is the executive producer of "ER." Mr. Rupel added: "And when NBC was supersizing 'Friends' and 'Will & Grace,' they had to pay everybody extra money."

The comment underscores a delicate question in the organizing effort of the Writers Guild: Is the work done by producers and editors on reality shows really the same as writing? From a creative standpoint is it comparable to the efforts of writers on scripted shows like "ER" and "CSI"?

Mr. Sharp and others say it certainly is. "We have to take all the little bits and give it a clear story arc, give it structure, out of what in reality might be a big mess," he said. "That, to me, is writing." Several talked about the common practice of "Franken-byting," in which the unpaid contestants on reality shows were made to say things by editing together individual words to make up an invented sentence.

Rebecca Hertz, a 28-year-old story producer, said that after three back-to-back stints on reality shows, she was exhausted, and disgusted. On "Big Man on Campus" for WB, "I'd often wrap at 1 a.m. and need to be on another shoot at 8 a.m.," she said. Postproduction on Fox's series "The Swan," she said, was worse. On a crash schedule, there was a day editor and a night editor, but only one producer, she said. "I'd be there from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m., and then have to be back," Ms. Hertz recalled. "It would be dawn and I'd be going home."

Mr. Sharp, a father of two and a former screenwriting professor, finds himself completely demoralized between reality gigs when he goes home, he said. "I can't keep doing this much longer if the conditions don't improve," he said. "I can see the end of the road for me. I just hobble in, and I've been gone for weeks, and I don't have anything to show for my disappearance. You're working years and years, and you're not putting anything away."

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