Reality: scribes working non-union

HOLLYWOOD — Now that a potential Writers Guild strike has been averted, union members can go back to business as usual — which for many means scripting shows that are not guild signatory.

It’s the writing community’s dirty little secret. For years, WGA members have penned non-guild programs, receiving a credit as “script consultant,” “segment producer” or no sort of credit at all.

And the industry, from the network execs to the guild reps to the writers themselves, all seem to accept the practice with a wink and a nudge.

“It’s like the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the Army,” says an Emmy-winning writer and guild member who is employed on a non-guild show. (For obvious reasons, the writer and others preferred to be anonymous.)

“The WGA knows that there are non-guild shows out there being written by their membership. But when they aren’t negotiating for anything, they just look the other way. The only time that they (the WGA) will come down on writers (working non-guild shows) is when it’s close to a strike.”

If caught, WGA members can be fined or have their membership revoked, although that rarely happens. The WGA declined to comment on the number of writers reprimanded last year for working for non-signatory companies.

However, in the wake of the spring settlement with producers, getting fingered for taking non-guild work is not high on the list of writers’ worries.

But why are so many WGA members willing to take non-guild work in the first place?

The simple answer is money.

“The majority of writing jobs available in Hollywood today aren’t guild sanctioned,” says the writer. “There are four networks and more than 80 cable channels. So if you don’t get a job on ‘Friends,’ it’s hard to stay true to the guild and still put dinner on the table.”

The number of WGA members secretly working non-guild jobs has grown with the proliferation of cable channels. With a constant need for programming made on the cheap, cablers such as MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and E! avoid producing shows from WGA writers. However, that hasn’t stopped them from hiring writers as “producers.”

While MTV declined to comment, E! Networks was open about its procedure in producing its shows, none of which are guild signatory.

“We employ an awful lot of people here,” says Greg Brannan, exec veep of programming and content for E! Networks. “We don’t ask them, know or care if they happen to be members of the Writers Guild. It’s not a prerequisite for working here, whether you’re a P.A., a writer, a producer or a vice president in programming. So are there guild members working here? There very well may be. But it’s none of our concern.”

Brennan points out that E! produces “nonfiction, documentary-style programming” that consists of a series of interviews interspersed with narrative. Minimal scripting eliminates the need for a separate writer and producer.

However, the real reason E! doesn’t pay WGA writers to pen scripts, according to one insider, is because it doesn’t have to.

“They don’t hire writers in a writer capacity because they don’t want to pay Writers Guild fees,” says a director who helmed a series for E! “So they hire them as producers and expect them to do everything.”

Despite the heavy workload, below guild-minimum wages (cablers can get away with paying less than 50% of what the networks would shell out for the same job) and absence of pension, health benefits and residual payments, WGA members are still willing to take non-guild jobs because of the highly competitive marketplace. They see the cablers as a way station on the road to a staff writing job on a network show.

“People look at cable as if it’s minor league,” explains one writer. “It can be, but that’s not always so. Many writers spend their entire careers in cable where the majority of the work is not protected by the guild.”

Changes in programming have also exacerbated the situation and brought the major networks into the controversy. The majority of reality and gameshows on both broadcast and cable TV do not use “writers” in the usual sense.

Consider CBS’ “Survivor” and NBC’s “The Weakest Link.” Neither are guild signatories. And the proliferation of these shows have reduced the already limited number of writing positions on sitcoms and dramas.

According to several scribes, popular programming has evolved but guild rules have not. Many writers cite an internal prejudice from both the networks and the guild concerning narrative versus reality writers.

According to one scribe, the guild isn’t willing to seriously confront the networks about the practice of hiring writers as “producers” because reality writing isn’t considered “real” writing, an assumption that angers many scribes.

“You’re still pitching situation concepts, but just not adding the dialogue,” argues one writer about penning reality programming. “You’re still creating a story. You think Jeff Probst comes up with his own lines?”

What’s the hold up?

So why hasn’t the guild initiated talks with producers about making their shows WGA signatories, instead of punishing its membership for wanting to work?

According to the WGA, italready has, recently converting ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” into a signatory shows.

“The guild has an active organizing campaign on a show-by-show basis in areas not traditionally represented by the guild, including many programs produced for original exhibition and basic cable,” says guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden. “Last year, the guild successfully negotiated agreements covering hundreds of hours of nonfiction programming.”

But for many members, that’s not enough. And until more progress is made, they will continue to accept unsanctioned work.

“The WGA mentality is either work a staff job at a network, which is like winning the lottery, or don’t work,” says the Emmy winner. “I don’t see that as much of a choice.”

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