“The secret about reality TV isn’t that it’s scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.” (WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr., back in 2005)
With all the recent WGA wrangling over residuals and its threat to go on strike, there has also been the guild’s recent efforts to bring reality television producers into the club, with the argument that most reality shows are to some effect scripted:
As Variety’s Brian Lowry reports:
“Certainly, the WGA’s fiery rhetoric is rooted in reality. Anybody paying the slightest bit of attention can see how staged most reality programs are, even without the little scandals that periodically arise — once greeted with shock, now mostly dismissed with yawns — whether it’s re-shooting sequences on MTV’s “The Hills” or the nature-loving host of Discovery’s “Man vs. Wild” bunking in posh hotels.“
He continues to note the complications and other reasons for the WGA in wanting to bring in reality TV, but one fact that is indisputable is that such shows work their staff into the ground.
Even the New York Times was in on the act with their discreet production of profitable reality shows back in 2001. Until their editors got unionized by the Editors Union that is:
From the Village Voice back in 2001:
It’s been widely reported that the New York Times Company produces highbrow documentaries and dreams of launching its own cable channel. But, the Voice has learned, NYT Television quietly operates three production studios in downtown Manhattan, where a mostly freelance staff works long hours with no overtime pay, churning out lots of lowbrow TV.
The rewards of reality TV are so great that the Times Company has been tempted to trade in its commitment to quality journalism and fair labor practices. Indeed, deadlines for reality TV have gotten so tight lately that the head of a local union accused NYT-TV of running “sweatshops,” and on December 4, the staff voted to bring in the union.
While union editors tend to receive $2000 for a 40-hour week, NYT-TV negotiates rates with each editor, often paying them between $1500 and $1800 for what stretches into a 50- to 70-hour week. With few exceptions, editors and assistants are paid a flat weekly rate, with no health insurance or overtime.
Whether reality television folks belong in the Writers Guild or another union, one fact is without a doubt, that they are exploited (like most of the subjects in the shows). Sure, it is a stepping stone into other career paths and many independent filmmakers in NYC use it as their bread and butter, but to work on highly profitable shows for corporations while doing absurd amounts of overtime with no health insurance or other benefits, that is just obscene and demands a reality check in itself.