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Reality TV: The Invisible Front in Hollywood’s Labor Wars

Once among the highest-profile of Hollywood's labor battles, the guilds have largely taken their fight underground to unionize workers in reality TV

Reality TV is the invisible front in Hollywood's labor wars.

Though reality TV workers once made it as far as the bargaining table, most are as far as ever from winning union representation.

Under its former president, the strongly pro-organizing Patric Verrone, the Writers Guild West tried to shine a public spotlight on the sector with its “Reality Rights” campaign.

But the issue was knocked out at the finish line in the guild's last contract negotiations with the studios and networks. Meanwhile improved work conditions, a fragmented, freelance work force and pressures of a weak economy have set those efforts back considerably since 2009.

WGAW's Director of Communications Neal Sacharow, insists the fight isn't over yet. “We want writers in reality TV who want to organize their production companies or shows to know that the WGAW is ready and available to work with them to get Guild representation,” he told TheWrap.

But since Verrone was defeated by Christopher Keyser in his bid for re-election last year, the WGAW's efforts have taken on a much lower profile and their tactics have changed dramatically.

Other obstacles remain in the path of unionization.

Jeff Bartsch has worked as a television editor for years on shows including "America's Next Top Model", "Supernanny" and "Blind Date."

Also read: Casting Directors, AMPTP Reach Tentative Agreement

"Reality is the Walmart of TV production," he told TheWrap. "Networks pit production companies against each other and bid production budgets down so low that producers often feel that the added cost of union contracts would cost them, and their employees, their jobs."

Bartsch remembers taking part in the WGA-sponsored effort in 2009 to organize reality editors and story producers but said that things have changed. He noted that certain reality production companies in Hollywood — once known as the worst offenders in treating their employees — have improved working conditions, making organizing more difficult than it already had been.

Then there's the problem of determining what is out there to organize.

There is no umbrella group for the production companies. Many production firms are put together for a specific project, the way a TV movie or indie film is. The projects can be one-offs, planned for single season or simply canceled quickly. Neither the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers nor the Motion Picture Association of America maintains overall data on the sector.

One of the best indicators of reality’s scope comes from FilmLA. The non-profit agency responsible for issuing location permits reports that for the past three years, about 40 percent of the TV permits issued have been for reality projects.

In the second quarter of this year, reality TV projects accounted for 1,461 permitted production days. That dwarfed the permitted days for dramas (581), sitcoms (274) and pilots (253)..

“That’s a big part of the problem,” said Steve Dayan, the business manager for Teamsters Local 399. “So many of these shows are so small and so transitory that by the time you become aware of them, they're gone. The economy doesn’t help, either, particularly here in California where so many productions have left the state.”

Many of the shows that do stay are extremely low-budget, which is a big part of their appeal to the networks. And there is a sense among producers, and even some cast and crew members, that unionization is not the best business model.

Also read: WGAE Reaches Deals With 2 Non-Scripted TV Producers

Other elements of reality TV production make it a challenge to organize workers.

Employees tend to move from one project to another and often switch companies at the same time. And the workers are often young people anxious to gain a foothold in show business and unconcerned with either health or retirement benefits.

“It’s hard to organize in reality because you have so much freelance employment,” Lowell Petersen, executive director of the WGA East told TheWrap. “You don’t have traditional setups like nurses in the hospital or factory workers on an assembly line. It’s project by project.”

All that said, some strides have been made.

The WGA East scored a landmark victory in July, winning company-paid health benefits, paid time off and compensation minimums for roughly 30 reality writer-producers via deals with Lion Television ("Cash Cab," left) and Optomen Productions ("Worst Cooks in America"). The deals, which took nearly three years and numerous filings with the National Labor Relations Board to achieve, were the guild’s first reality pacts in the region. There is less reality production in New York, and it much of it tends toward documentary-type fare, as opposed to on the West Coast.

In August, IATSE’s Local 700 won company-paid health and retirement benefits for 11 crew members on the Burbank-based Mission Control Media-produced Syfy show "Hot Set” after shutting down production. 

And IATSE also brought the crew at “Biggest Loser” into the fold after a two-week walkout in 2010. SAG-AFTRA represents the majority of show hosts and regular performers and the Directors Guild of America points to 650 reality shows under contract since 2003.

But those triumphs have been hard to come by and relatively rare, and no one disputes that the majority of reality workers remain non-union.

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The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and International Alliance of Stage Employees have quietly stepped into the vacuum left by the Writer's Guild West. They are favoring a stealthier, bottom-up approach.

Dayan of the Teamsters said his union takes a similar tack for the sake of the employees. “They don’t want to be seen talking with you because they don’t want to be fired,” he told TheWrap. "I think of us like the police and fire departments — it takes the citizenry to call first.”

The unions’ motivation isn’t entirely altruistic. The difficult economic times and the degree to which the networks have replaced scripted fare with cheaper unscripted shows have taken a toll on some of the unions’ dues base and health and pension funds in particular.

Also read: L.A. Teamsters Like the Comcast-NBCU Deal

“For us, safety issues are critical." said Dayan, who represents drivers. “There are federal and state laws that apply when you’re transporting employees in terms of drug testing and proper rest. We have to convince the employers that using union drivers is not only the safe way and the right thing to do, but it is cost-effective."

Dayan remains optimistic, but said he wished that the Teamsters and other unions had been more aggressive when reality TV production began exploding in about 2000.

“I would absolutely say there is momentum to organize within the reality sector,” Dayan said. “Our relationship with the IA has definitely paid off, and we’re making inroads. It’s slow, but it’s sure."

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