Losers of the Writers’ Strike: Reality Writers Continue to Go Unprotected

Cynthia Littleton, writer of TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet, recaps the events and timeline that unfolded during the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike from October 2007 to February 2008. She explains the intense and heated dynamics within the picket lines in front of major TV and film studios involving some of the biggest writers and showrunners in America, as well as in the negotiation rooms between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). This lengthy period of frenzied and heated arguments followed by stony silences without resolve finally reached a breakthrough after various implementations and changes were brought onto, and off, the table of negotiation. A few topics of interest came up continually from the side of the WGA, including debating payment changes to writers’ salaries on new media platforms and web-based television and film exhibition and re-runs. While this remained a top priority and eventually had a compromise made between the two sides, there were some items of negotiation that had to fall to the wayside, leaving some writers in the industry completely unprotected.

The attempt by the WGA to bring in animation and reality show writers under their jurisdiction of membership completely failed. Providing more guild and union protection for all members of the writing community should be a standard in protection of the rights of working individuals in all aspects of the Hollywood industry because far too often the people in the “lower” rankings of production get screwed over. With the world of video and audio production relying on the ups and downs of audience viewership and consumerism, employment is increasingly more unsteady and instable, leaving many workers to go without a writing job for extended periods of time. It is at this point where established writers could fall back on the residual payments of their past work, which means for every rerun or continual exhibition of their work, they get a cut of the profit. Although this topic remained at the height of the issue of the writer’s strike, too much of the focus was taken away from members of the writing community who shall remain the exploited underdog.

After the WGA, most notably the WGA’s president Patric Verrone and executive director David Young, pushed so hard for this implementation of more writers that could join the guild, how could they let it eventually fall throw? Littleton notes a few different reasoning for its need to be dropped from negotiation, one being that “the proposal had been a long shot from the start, and many within the WGA regarded it as a provision that was expendable if sacrificing it would allow for headway in new media” (Littleton 198). Another area of discontent towards the reality shows Littleton notes is that “there was also concern about the potential for thousands of new WGA members on the lower end of the earning scale putting pressure on the guild’s pension and health benefits” (Littleton 171).

Reality has always been seen as the trashiest form of television and is recognized as so by even the most ardent fans of the programming. But why? Littleton states that there is a “bias in the creative community against unscripted programs. As widespread and successful as reality programming has become, a pervasive feeling remains that such shows are second-class TV citizens compared to scripted series” (Littleton 57). Littleton goes on to explain that reality TV was seen as prevalent during the writer’s strike because it was coming in as a replacement for drama and comedy written shows. So, with all these different negative aspects working against it, reality TV has been given a horrible name in the eyes of the film and TV creative community. And these reality “writers”, sometimes named more as producers or “storytellers”, remain relatively unprotected in the ways of the Hollywood guild system. At least for animation writers, they have a chance of membership under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. But where are reality writers supposed to go for guild protection?

Gallery Photo: Hyungwon Ryoo/UPN.  (c) 2005  CBS Broadcasting Inc.

Gallery Photo: Hyungwon Ryoo/UPN. (c) 2005 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

The WGA already failed once before the strike to implement good guidance and protection for reality writers after the botched attempt to grant membership to the producer/writers of the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model in 2006. The WGA called for a strike of the writers of the show, which eventually ended in the termination of all 12 of the writers’ jobs. Eventually the IATSE stepped in to unionize who was left on the show to be protected, but by this point, as spoken from Daniel J Blau, one of the fired writers, “the entire story department [was] abolished” (Blau). So, in light of this first failure, the writer’s strike of 2007-08 was just another failure on the part of the WGA to give protection to writers of reality TV.

The WGA website notes that most reality TV writers remain unprotected. Even game shows are beginning to feel the effects of this unchanged protection verdict. The website states that networks are beginning to place game shows under the header of reality TV, which gives the networks the advantage of hiring writers who are non-union. The website states the issue in this is that, “non-union writing affects the entire industry, depressing wages and benefits for all writers” (Writers Guild of America, West). Shows like Hollywood Squares, Let’s Make A Deal, and Star Search were once covered by WGA contracts, but now have lost that protection, especially after shows like American Idol, Deal or No Deal, and The Price is Right go unprotected by guild regulations from the very beginning.

Once again, it’s just another way for those at the top of the chain in the Hollywood industry to screw over the little guys who are working overtime and excessively in order to scrape by and without benefits that would stabilize and make efficiency of their working power. With the view on reality TV being so low in both the eyes of its audience and fellow writers and industry workers, will the writers of reality TV ever receive the same respect and protection as all the other writers of the industry? Or will they continue to remain at the mercy of CEOs who bank on their creative process without leveraging protection? The continual unprotected rights of reality writers will continue to hurt both the WGA and writers in general if no consensus is to be made upon giving them guild-granted unionization.

Cover image via Blamo Designs.

Sources:

Blau, Daniel J. “The WGA already lost Round 1.” LA Times. 20 Nov 2007. Web. 7 Feb 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/nov/20/news/OE-BLAU20&gt;

Littleton, Cynthia. TV On Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet. Syracuse University Press, 2013. Print.

“Reality & Game Show Writers.” Writers Guild of America, West. Web. 7 Feb 2015. <http://www.wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=2630&gt;

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