The Real World of Reality TV: Worker Exploitation?

Forewarned is, you know, forearmed. And it isn’t only writers who feel victimized:

Writers_raise_signs_at_wga_rallyby David Dayen

On September 10, 16 editors on the Bravo reality show Shahs of Sunset walked off the job in Hollywood after informing their employer, Ryan Seacrest Productions, of their intentions to unionize. The next day, Bravo announced they would delay the premiere of the fourth season.

“We thought it was about time, in the fourth season of a popular show, to get health care and pension benefits,” says Vanessa Hughes, one of the editors seeking representation through the Motion Picture Editors Guild, a division of the International Association of Stage and Theatrical Employees (IATSE). “We thought it’d take a day or so of picketing.”

But on September 26, Bravo announced they would take over production of the show, and the striking editors would be fired—leading workers to believe that Bravo would complete the season with scabs.

None of the fired editors ever spoke directly with their bosses or the network, hearing about their termination through a press release. “We appreciate the passion, commitment and contributions these editors made to the fourth season of Shahs of Sunset,” Ryan Seacrest Productions wrote in a statement.

In response, IATSE filed unfair labor practice charges against Bravo, held rallies in New York and Los Angeles, and asked current and former editors for Bravo programs to sign a petition, denouncing the anti-union retaliation and showing solidarity with the striking workers.

I signed that petition. In between writing about the nitty-gritty details of economics and finance, I have spent nearly two decades editing for television and film. If you name a station on your cable package, the odds are pretty good I’ve worked on a show for it. And of the dozens of non-fiction television shows I’ve edited these many years, only one was a union shop, and that job lasted so briefly that I didn’t qualify for membership.

“It’s incredible,” said California Assembly member Isadore Hall at a rally for the striking workers last week outside the headquarters of Bravo’s parent company, NBCUniversal, “that you can flip on one channel and the workers who made the show get good wages and benefits, and you flip over to another channel and they aren’t.” But that’s precisely the case.

Hollywood prides itself on being a union town, but this growing segment of the business, so-called “unscripted” TV, has matured without industry-wide representation. Today almost half of all programming on broadcasting and cable is unscripted, generating $6 billion in annual revenue, according to Nielsen. And the vast majority of them are non-union. Now that various guilds want to change that, networks and production companies have dug in their heels in opposition.

In truth, no TV show beamed into your home is unscripted. “Nobody sticks a camera at a rock and that’s a show,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. Behind-the-scenes producers, editors and writers (though they typically never get such billing) transform hundreds of hours of raw material into something coherent, and at its best, entertaining.

As an editor, I’ve had to manufacture stories out of virtually nothing. I’ve written voiceover and even lines of replacement dialogue, which later get inserted over a reaction shot. I once read a “scratch track” voiceover in my edit bay so I’d have something to edit images over, and my voice wound up on Fox as part of an awards show (without added compensation as voiceover talent, I might add).  I’ve performed virtually every task a writer or producer would when constructing a scripted show.

“I think if you ask most editors, they’d say that reality is harder to do,” said striking editor Vanessa Hughes.

Unions initially ignored unscripted TV as a niche cable product. But the success of Survivor and American Idol in the early 2000s showed that such shows could generate big audiences.

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