Writers union seeks to organize U.S. reality TV

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The union representing Hollywood screenwriters launched a campaign on Monday to gain a labor contract for writers, producers and editors who work in the booming field of "reality TV" shows.

The Writers Guild of America argues that the creative teams behind the camera on such hit shows as "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Bachelor" routinely work far longer hours at much lower pay than their counterparts in scripted dramas and sitcoms.

The guild says writers, editors and producers who toil anonymously to create -- or at least perfect -- the illusion of spontaneity on reality shows do so without the health insurance or pension benefits earned by union members.

They are also denied the residual payments most Hollywood writers receive for work that airs in secondary markets such as reruns and overseas distribution, the union says.

"The secret about reality TV isn't that it's scripted, which it is," said Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the West Coast branch of the WGA. "The secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications sweatshop."

He called the guild's reality TV campaign "the most aggressive organizing effort" ever undertaken by the WGA, which represents some 12,000 movie and TV writers nationwide.

Networks and studios have resisted efforts to extend collective bargaining to reality shows, which generally can be produced more cheaply and quickly than scripted shows.

The industry asserts the guild has previously agreed to seek reality TV contracts on a production-by-production basis and that efforts to organize unscripted workers as a whole would clash with the jurisdiction of other Hollywood unions.

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents networks and studios in contract talks with the guild, challenged the WGA's assertion that reality TV productions are "sweatshops." "That's just inflammatory and simply untrue," he said.

But Dave Rupel, a veteran story producer and "show-runner" for several unscripted shows, told Reuters it was not uncommon for him and other in his business to work 18-hour days, seven days a week, for months, and at lower wages and without benefits.

"It's running people into the ground," Rupel said. "Every project I've ever been on for a reality show, the first thing they say to me is, 'There's no time and there's no money."'

The guild says it has received nearly 1,000 signed authorization cards from reality TV workers requesting unionization since 500 people turned out for an organizing meeting on May 7.

The industry disputes the union's assertion that many of the workers it seeks to represent function as writers, saying they do not, for the most part, write dialogue and scripts.

However, Rupel said they do serve as "storytellers" -- the functional equivalent of writers -- through the work they do setting up interactions of contestants and editing hundreds of hours of tape into coherent shows.

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