Thursday, August 25, 2005

Writers, Reality TV, and Residuals

I have mentioned in the past that the WGA doesn't always do all that it can to protect its members and ensure they are getting a proper cut of entertainment profits. My discussions have ranged from comparisons to SAG's video game negotiations to comments regarding DVD residuals. In each case I have been critical of the WGA, but one area I haven't talked about (at least not at enough length) is the WGA's reaction to reality tv.

WGA members are not exactly happy with reality tv. You might have noticed a correlation between writer strikes and an increase in reality programs on television. Surprising as it may sound though, reality tv shows do in fact have writers. Sure they aren't the same kind of writer that you might envision, they aren't scripting full dialogue, and sure much of what a traditional writer does for scripted television is done by the editors and directors of reality tv show. Reality tv shows have in the writer role, among other roles I am sure, what are called "story assistants" and these story assistants can become members of the WGA. This is a good thing for script tv writers as it means that the discount price of writers on reality tv is not a permanent state. My hypothesis is that once reality tv normalizes in the industry, bringing with it its ad revenue, the people who work on them will demand similar wages to those paid on scripted shows. Eventually this will cause a leveling of cost differences between the two styles of entertainment.

Before that happens one thing has to happen first. Chiefly that the crews on reality tv shows actually get paid for what they are working. Are you surprised to see this statement? Surely the crews on reality shows are at least paid for the work they do, we don't live in the 19th century after all? According to today's LA Times reality tv shows may be the sweatshops of television, continually flaunting labor laws.

Some key excerpts from the article are:

The Writers Guild of America, West, is backing the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, to put pressure on production companies and networks involved in the burgeoning reality TV business. The guild, which unveiled a push to organize reality TV writers in June, backed a similar suit last month against several networks and production companies.

To meet the deadline, Isenberg recalled, he found himself working six days a week, often until 10 p.m. Occasionally, the writers would stay past midnight to screen footage for Fox executives. Isenberg said one story assistant was so distraught after working 28 hours straight that she broke down in tears and had to be sent home.

Through it all, Isenberg continued to receive the same pay, about $900 a week. Under state labor laws, the suit alleges, he and his fellow writers should have received several thousand dollars in overtime pay.

Ah, the glamor of television. Work your arse off for $900 a week.

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