The Reality of Reality TV

Last week, the Writers Guild of America threw down the gauntlet and said it had nearly a thousand authorization cards from reality-show editors, producers and writers—many of them toiling on network mainstays like CBS' The Amazing Race and NBC's The Apprentice—who wanted representation. Beyond a move to win an equitable payday for those who labor in TV's most dominant genre, though hardly its best-compensating, the WGA's organizing effort should put to rest the biggest misnomer in the industry: Reality Television.

There's a reason why a form of programming that many thought would be a flash in the pan has been transformed into a prime time staple. These “reality” series—whether Survivor or Beauty and the Geek—are cast, plotted and edited as carefully as King of Queens or Law & Order. Scenarios are designed for humor and conflict, and lines are often fed to contestants and stars. Do you really think The Simple Life's Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are that funny on their own?

Check out HBO's The Comeback, a send-up of the genre, which stars Lisa Kudrow as an over-the-hill sitcom star being followed by a reality-show crew tracking her painful return to prime time in a minor sitcom role. Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish, is seen being coached by the reality show's producer, as well as doing multiple takes to achieve just the right sort of verisimilitude. Now that's reality TV. You can be sure it reflects exactly the sort of thing that goes on behind the scenes of Growing Up Gotti or The Surreal Life.

Indeed, the second biggest misnomer in the business is labeling all this stuff “unscripted.” Talk to the producers, and they'll tell you it's not unusual to start shooting an unscripted show with a 100-page “outline.” These shows are so formatted that dialogue can be manufactured after the fact: Editors work with writers to splice together lines in what are known as “Frankenbites” to help create storylines with more comedic or dramatic impact.

“Make no mistake, these people working on these shows are storytellers, and storytellers should be represented by the Guild,” says WGA West President Daniel Petrie Jr. “But they're not being compensated as such. Far from it.” A writer on a prime time drama or comedy is guaranteed a paycheck of roughly $3,500 a week, plus health and pension benefits, as well as residuals. Those doing similar work on reality shows, where benefits are rare, earn salaries more likely to be in the range of $700-$1,700 a week (although writers and producers on some top-rated shows are making sitcom-level money). Producers and networks like reality television because it's cheaper—by half, usually—than comedy or drama. But part of the bottom-line savings are in salaries.

It's a wonder that WGA has taken so long to go Norma Rae on the 70 or so companies in the reality game. “For a while, we were asleep at the switch,” Petrie admits. “It took us a while to realize how these shows really operated and what a big part of the business it had become.” He bandies about the term “sweatshop” to describe what's going on behind the scenes.

Individual production companies so far have stayed mum. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the studios' negotiating arm, predictably has come forth and said, among other things, that these shows aren't really scripted and so the WGA lacks jurisdiction.

The WGA's Petrie says, “I know we have a long, hard slog ahead. It could even eventually mean a strike. I hope it doesn't come to that.”

It shouldn't have to. There will probably have to be some accommodation for independent companies that can't afford to compete with the big boys in the check-writing department. But there must be enough money floating around to pay a fair wage to people who have the talent to make even Paris Hilton sound witty.

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