Reality Writers, WGA Extend a Free-Drink Handshake

Guild is trying to connect with the hard-to-organize, hard-to-unionize group.

The Writers Guild courtship of reality-show writers may finally be turning a corner.

Maybe it was the free drink tickets, but organizers from the WGA West told TheWrap that they were emboldened by a show of 50 people who turned out for a mixer of reality, nonfiction and game-show television types held at Hollywood's Formosa Cafe on Wednesday night.

The guild has been hosting similar events over the last year in an effort to create a sense of cohesion and enthusiasm among the diffuse reality community.

"The fact is most reality production companies aren't union-friendly," said Trish Albert, one of two organizers hired by the guild to head up its outreach.

The problem, she said, “is that many of these people are hopping around from show to show. It's hard to organize them, because they don't see each other every day and employers don't get to know them. So we're just trying to get these people together in a room and update them on our progress."

Not that the reality writers don’t feel they need the guild’s aid.

For the collection of writers, producers and editors mingling beneath the array of autographed photos of old-school Hollywood stars that line the walls of the historic Formosa, any progress is past due.

Many described horrific working conditions on programs such as "Temptation," "The Hills" and "D.E.A.," where they were asked to work up to 14-hour days producing dozens of shows for 12 to 14 weeks without benefits or overtime pay.

The guild has long contended that production companies try to circumvent the WGA's collective-bargaining agreement by classifying certain workers as story producers, who are performing the role of writers by devising endurance tests on shows such as "Survivor" or interpersonal conflicts on programs like "Big Brother."

"The future of television seems to be reality, but we’re not receiving equity in terms of representation," said Michael Tetrick, who has written and produced for "Beach Patrol San Diego" and "Jeff Corwin Unleashed."

"We're doing the same work as people on scripted television and only getting a minuscule piece of the pie,” Tetrick said. “Management is always going to say it’s a difficult time right now, but if we don't stand up, we're not going to get anything. I'm here tonight to talk to people in the trenches."

Studios counter that reality writers are in fact functioning as editors and that their shows are largely unscripted.

The guild's courtship of reality writers has been ongoing since 2005, when the organization launched its "reality rights" campaign. But the move to unionize them hit a setback during the 2007-08 writers strike, when the WGA shelved its reality demands in favor of trying to get a greater share of revenues for its members from new media and DVD markets.

But organizers and members of a volunteer committee formed to focus on unionization have expressed optimism that guild president John Wells’ stated commitment to reality writers — and his deep connections in the industry — had given a second life to their efforts.

The organization plans to work on a company-by-company basis to get member benefits extended to writers and story producers on nonfiction programming. For now, the approach will be piecemeal, not aimed at effecting broad industrywide change.

Organizers won't reveal which production company is the first to be targeted, but they expect to see movement within the next six months.

"John Wells has made a lot of promises,” said Rosemary DiSalvo, who had worked on series including "Temptation" and "Amazing Vacation Homes." “We're hoping he'll influence people, and not make a lot of friends."