Reality TV: The Next Hurdle

Cynthia Littleton vividly describes the rollercoaster ride of the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike in her book, TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet. The main goals of the WGA included “achieving jurisdictional gains in new media, reality, and animation,” and while the final outcome of the strike was successful in terms of new media, not all of their objectives were realized, particularly relating to the status of reality and animation workers (142). Although there were major concerns to improve their working conditions and benefits, in actuality, the provision regarding reality and animation writers was seen as “expendable if sacrificing it would allow for headway in new media” (198).

But why should we care? Since the turn of the century, reality show programming has risen as one of the most popular forms of entertainment shown on television today. Besides the sharp increase of reality TV shows aired as a result of the strike, which counted for 77% of the “top 10 primetime broadcasted TV shows” of the 2007-2008 season, it has remained fairly consistent in capturing over 50% of TV viewer’s attention since the 2002-2003 season. If the majority of programming being shown is unscripted reality television, then that means over 50% of “unscripted writers” are not getting proper overtime pay or health benefits. It seems as though this issue should have taken priority, yet once the WGA took that off the table, they were closer to achieving their new media goals first at the expense of unscripted writers, who counted as over half of the workforce and weren’t even members yet.

Shifting TV Reality

Interestingly enough, Littleton describes a precursor to the strike that involved the producers of a popular reality show, America’s Next Top Model. The show’s producers wanted to update their contracts with their independent production company, in which they would receive WGA representation. Frustration led to a small strike, which was basically a “practice drill for the much larger campaign to come” (61). One statement on a picket fence read, “the top show on the CW is the only show that’s not union” (59). This is just one example of workers in reality TV trying to improve their situation in hopes of combating “harsh working conditions and paltry compensation,” but to no avail (57).

The weak efforts in improving reality television could be a result of its reputation as a mindless form of entertainment, more so than other shows on TV. Yet the art of crafting it isn’t as simple minded as it might seem. WGAW member, J. Ryan Stradal, describes the value in unscripted television as a comparable form of storytelling in which workers are “crafting an inevitable occurrence into an emotional, humorous, or provocative journey.” Writing for a comedy or drama does require creativity, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply for unscripted shows. The approach of “making a story out of pre-existing material is a specialized skill and requires a great deal of imagination, creativity, and innovation.” There is no reason why these workers should be considered less than tradition screenwriters.

WGAW’s most recent statement regarding reality TV can be found directly on their website, stating “nearly all reality television writers are misclassified as exempt employees” and as president Verrone affirms, “it clearly demonstrates the gigantic problems in reality TV production and the magnitude of the liability faced by the companies.” With all that being said, what is the guild doing to solve these problems? Unscripted writers are equally as hard working as any writer on a sitcom and deserve to have some sort of representation. Maybe in the next 20 years, this issue will be tackled more forcefully in yet another strike.

Littleton, Cynthia. TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse UP, 2013. Print.

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