WGA reality check

Scribe tribe on warpath over unscripted TV

After several years of little success, the Writers Guild of America West has stepped up its campaign to organize reality TV writers, producers and editors — a move that has producers crying foul.

The guild said it attracted more than 500 people to an organizing meeting last month and has received nearly 1,000 signed authorization cards from writers, producers and editors who work in reality and want to be repped by the WGA West. It also has sent a demand letter for recognition to all the major reality production companies; none has yet signed.

“This is the most aggressive organizing effort the guild has undertaken since its founding,” WGA West prexy Daniel Petrie Jr. said Monday. “The secret about reality TV isn’t that it’s scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.”

AMPTP prexy Nick Counter said the WGA’s effort flies in the face of an informal agreement reached by producers and writers during the most recent contract talks.

“There was an understanding between the (WGA) and the companies that discussions would take place on a production-by-production basis,” Counter told Daily Variety. “To my knowledge the WGA hasn’t attempted to do this, but has instead decided to engage in this tactic.”

Counter called the WGA’s move “most unfortunate and unproductive, and even self-destructive.” He said the problem with what the WGA is trying to do is the fact that reality producers, editors and writers all serve different functions depending on the show.

“There’s such a wide range of programming in this genre, it can’t be dealt with on a rubber-stamp basis,” he said.

The guild could take the matter to the National Labor Relations Board and seek a federally supervised election, but that process likely would take several years — by which time many of the shows probably would no longer be on the air.

There’s also the problem of which union has jurisdiction over reality gigs. Counter said IATSE and the DGA have “advised my office that they dispute the claims” of the WGA and that, in some cases, their respective unions rep staffers the WGA is trying to recruit.

“The only way that could be resolved is through the NLRB,” Counter said.

Several top reality producers declined comment or were unavailable, according to their reps.

In addition to concerns over the various kinds of reality shows, producers contend the programs should not be under WGA jurisdiction because the shows aren’t scripted. They also assert that the costs of operating under the guild contract would drive all but the most successful shows out of business and that few have any chance at ancillary revenues from syndication and DVD.

Though reality fare sometimes involves 100-page episode outlines, producers won’t label those who perform those tasks as writers, opting to use terms like “story producers,” “story editors” and “segment producers.”

Each reality show usually has a “story staff” of three to seven; average pay is about half the WGA minimum for a primetime network show. However, on many successful skeins, like “Survivor” or “American Idol,” top producers can make much more than guild minimums.

“The creative men and women who make reality television possible work without health and pension benefits or minimum salary protections or residuals,” Petrie said. “They often work under oppressive conditions, among them near universal indifference to and noncompliance with state and federal overtime laws. The Writers Guild is committed to seeing the end of this ‘Holly-Mart.’ ”

Petrie also hinted the guild may seek legal action if the companies don’t sign with the WGA. “If the industry refuses, we are prepared to take the actions necessary to achieve our goals and to assist the reality TV workforce as they seek enforcement of state and federal overtime laws,” he added.

In a clear signal as to how reality is hurting the guilds, the WGA, Directors Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild all agreed in their most recent basic contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to free reuse of dramatic series for two months and to a one-year deferral of below-the-line wage hikes in new one-hour series. By making the concessions, the guilds were seeking to help traditional shows succeed because of the incursion by reality shows — an area in which the guilds have little jurisdiction.

The WGA West hired labor veteran David Young as director of organizing last year, to replace the departed Gerry Daley, but the guild’s success in reality has been limited to one show: HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which agreed to sign in 2003.

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