Opening another potential rift with its sister union, the Screen Actors Guild has confirmed its interest in bringing reality show performers into its ranks.
Though there is some overlap in membership, TV performers long have been represented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which has steered clear of the reality genre.
AFTRA does not consider on-screen participants on shows such as "The Apprentice," "Fear Factor," and "Survivor" to be performers. Instead, they are seen as contestants who vie for prize money in the same way they do on game shows.
"We get calls from people wanting to know if (reality shows) are union," said Joan Weise, AFTRA's national director of entertainment programming. "We do not consider what they are doing to be performing."
But SAG has joined the Writers' Guild of America as the Hollywood unions seek to organize performers in the increasingly popular genre.
"When reality shows are produced, they ought to be done under a union contract whenever possible," said Seth Oster, a spokesman for SAG. "This is a major problem and one of the significant challenges that working actors are facing and that SAG is trying to address."
He declined to offer specifics about SAG's efforts.
But Cheryl Rhoden, assistant executive director for WGA, West, made clear that the union felt reality programming was fair game.
"The guild is actively organizing in all areas, including reality TV, and recently increased the staff dedicated to this effort," she said. "The guild was founded on the premise that writers have economic and creative rights. That is certainly true of writers working on reality programming. On reality programming, the salaries and working conditions do not meet guild standards."
Since the guild embarked on this campaign a year ago, it has increased its staff of organizers, researchers and support personnel.
Barbara Brogliatti, a spokeswoman for studios' bargaining arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers, refused to comment on the issue.
The push for unionization of reality programming could provide another source of tension between SAG and AFTRA.
There has been lingering ill will between the two groups since SAG members narrowly blocked a merger between the two last July. The merger was pushed as a way to gain more bargaining strength, but opponents at SAG claimed they wanted to maintain their identity as union overseeing acting in all feature film work.
It is an open secret in Hollywood that reality shows use writers some of them guild members and that some of the on-air participants are professional actors.
"There is a fine line between acting on a so-called reality show and a scripted show," said Jason Squire, a USC School of Cinema-Television professor and author of "The Movie Business Book." "There are rumors that some reality shows script their material, at least in a general way. Does that make these talent actors? If so, shouldn't they be in AFTRA for SAG?"
No one knows how many card-carrying actors have appeared on reality shows because SAG does not represent non-dramatic series and AFTRA officials say they don't conduct background checks of participants to see if they belong to their union.
What's more, AFTRA has only attempted to bring reality show hosts, narrators, stunt performers and other behind-the-scenes workers into its ranks.
But AFTRA's reluctance to organize non-performing on-air participants "American Idol" contestants are considered performers and are covered could also hinder SAG's efforts to organize participants.
"There is an over-supply of talent in front of and behind the camera and that makes it a buyer's market," said John Caldwell, a critical studies professor in the film, television and digital media department at UCLA. "It's not like the unions have been able to squash it. There is just too much work in non-union sectors."
SAG estimates that 9,000 different scripted acting jobs were lost during the last TV season due to reality shows. "This is a major problem and one of the significant challenges that working actors are facing and that SAG is trying to address," said Oster.
The WGA, meanwhile, has been pressuring production companies that create the shows to pay consistent union-level wages, as well as health and pension benefits.
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