Interest in nonfiction 'writers' adds to drama

Here’s a cold dowsing of reality for reality TV producers, borrowing from the adage that Hollywood is really just high school with money: You know the cool kids, the asterisk-free writers, who have been flirting with you? They’re only doing it so you’ll help them with their math.

As the negotiating deadline between the Writers Guild of America and Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers nears, everyone has wondered what demands might be jettisoned in the hope of gaining concessions and cobbling together a deal. And despite assertions to the contrary, the goal of bringing unscripted TV under the guild’s aegis (a move with obvious strategic and financial benefits) does seem like a logical casualty — a pawn, as it were, in this high-stakes chess match.

To be fair, more perceptive pundits (OK, me) expressed skepticism from the moment the guild began championing reality producers for membership, suggesting that this arranged marriage displays all the earmarks of a criminal getting married to prevent his spouse from testifying against him. By absorbing reality TV into the WGA, networks couldn’t rely on unscripted programs filling the airwaves as a hedge in the event of a strike.

Nevertheless, the writers have worked their ink-stained fingers to the bone seeking to convince reality producers that they not only belong in the guild but would be welcomed with open arms.

Back in 2005, then-WGA West prez Daniel Petrie Jr. announced a major organizing campaign, saying, “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.”

Horror stories about long hours without overtime ensued, and the WGA vowed to end this “Holly-Mart”-style exploitation. Yet in a letter to members, Petrie also honestly addressed the negotiating implications, saying, “Our position at the bargaining table is weakened to the extent that such a significant component of TV programming is not represented by us.”

Here was the primary motivation behind new-found interest in admitting reality’s “story editors” and “story producers” into the guild’s fraternal order. The 1988 strike, after all, unleashed “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” on primetime, and they’re still with us — “Cops” is poised to celebrate its 700episode — gobbling up precious real estate and becoming for writers the shirtless “gift” that keeps on taking.

The guild’s current leadership continued the courtship, making reality brethren the proverbial belle of their ball. Indeed, at the WGA Awards dinner in February, WGA West prexy Patric Verrone presented a special award to the “writers” of “America’s Next Top Model,” who were let go after a thwarted effort last year to place the CW skein under guild jurisdiction, only to be outmaneuvered when IATSE swooped in and organized them as “editors” instead.

On the plus side, at least nobody has to take public responsibility for “writing” the pearls spilling out of Tyra Banks’ mouth.

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.

That said, it’s imprecise at best to label the work done on these shows writing; sure, stories are shaped and manipulated through an alchemic mix of editing, writing and structural conception that ultimately tells a story, but process-wise nobody would think of comparing it to the output of Larry Gelbart or Robert Towne.

Even if there were no cause to doubt the writers’ broader intentions, human nature and past pronouncements indicate that many are less than enthusiastic about embracing the “virus” that has infiltrated timeslots once devoted to sitcoms and dramas. Granted, reality is here to stay and some scribes confess they enjoy watching it, but few would equate concocting goofy situations for Paris Hilton with crafting a well-constructed scene or pithy dialogue. 

So whatever the outcome, the chess metaphor of sacrificing pawns to reach an objective clearly applies. In showbiz deal-making, actually, it’s a fairly common tactic, where “We’re right behind you” isn’t so much a sign of support as, sometimes, just a polite way of saying goodbye.

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