Writers Guild Seeking to Expand Contract to Reality Shows
By ANDREW SIMONS
Talk about a dose of reality.
The Writers Guild of America, watching what it sees as the threat posed by reality programming, is trying to expand its influence in the “unscripted” programming format that has its share of scripted moments.
“In terms of writing task ideas, yeah, absolutely, they have a bunch of creative people trying to come up with the ins and outs of each of the tasks for the show,” NBC spokesman Jim Dowd said in describing the hit series “The Apprentice.”
As many traditionally scripted shows continue to struggle, broadcasters and cable networks have seen audiences swell for cheaper programming like “The Apprentice,” Fox’s “American Idol” and Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which migrated to NBC.
In the 2000-2001 season, when the WGA and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers last sat down to contract talks, there was no true reality show in the Top 10. In each of the last two seasons, however, reality shows have occupied half of the Top 10 spots, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc.
That sustained popularity has prompted the WGA’s effort to extend its television reach beyond sitcoms and hour-long dramas.
The first of its proposals is a so-called neutrality clause requiring big production companies to keep out of union attempts to organize, said Patric M. Verrone, treasurer/secretary and a co-chairman of the WGA negotiating committee.
“In this industry, historically, the WGA hasn’t needed these kinds of tools because the companies have always been very good about giving us access,” said Verrone. “We’ve been sort of an in-box union where the writers have either been our members or are anxious to become our members and the companies let it happen. But now with all of these independent producers making all of these reality shows, that’s not the case. We’re finding that we have to do some old-fashioned roll-up- your-sleeves union organizing.”
The second part of the platform is called an industry standard proposal, which would require big distributors to use independent production houses that hire union writers.
Though most of the companies that produce reality programming are not bound by the producers’ contract with the WGA, the guild is making a stand it hopes will raise the bar for producers that are subsidiaries of the larger media companies.
“The networks are signatory to our agreements as producers, but not as networks,” said Verrone. “So we can’t force them. CBS can’t be forced to make ‘Survivor’ (a WGA production) because CBS doesn’t produce it, they only distribute it.”
If the WGA succeeds in having its contract extended to writers on reality shows, the television networks will be required to “play ball,” said Verrone.
“If we don’t have it, they can kind of cheat,” he said. “But now they’re using outside producers and saying ‘it’s not our company, we can’t force them to be union,’ so now we’re trying to get them to say, ‘Yes, we can.'”
Barbara Brogliatti, a spokeswoman for the producers association, declined comment.
Independent producers are also tight-lipped about the matter, even though they are not a party to the contract talks. One reason: They don’t want to be seen as creating scripted programming, though some recognize the need for writers on their shows.
“Anything written with a certain caliber of quality comes from these writers. These guilds represent the best people,” said Vincent Arcaro, executive producer at Dark Light Pictures Inc., which is in production of a cooking-based reality show “Real Food.”
Arcaro said the show is conceived to be ad-libbed, but he noted that there could be people on the set making suggestions on the dialogue. “You have to see how the action plays against a narration after you see all the film,” he said.
But the WGA is taking a very narrow view of such efforts. Verrone, in an appeal to writers posted on the WGA Web site, said that the greater number of jobs covered by the guild contract, the greater its power.
“Calling these shows ‘unscripted’ is an insult to the men and women who work the 14-hour days and seven-day weeks writing these shows,” he wrote. “We’ve seen the scripts and we’ve met many of the so-called ‘segment producers,’ ‘researchers’ and ‘script consultants.’ They’re us. They’re writers.”
The WGA has aggressively sought jurisdiction over independent studios through an amnesty program. The guild is asking members doing non-union work, such as reality shows, to come forward without fear of reprisal. It’s also asking non-union writers to join the WGA and membership dues will be waived.
“The companies will tell people, ‘All the union wants you for is your money, your dues, your initiation fee,'” said Verrone. “So we waive that. We try to make it clear that you’re not going to get the pension plan, you’re not going to get any health coverage, these shows don’t rerun, so the residuals they get aren’t as valuable. You offer a carrot, and you offer a stick. The carrot has been what the union offers everybody, the stick is we’re not going to punish you if you come forward now.”
The union claims there is at least some interest from the reality TV writers.
“We get people calling,” said Paul Nawrocki, the union’s assistant executive director at the WGA. “I speak to lots of membership groups and I get people coming up to me afterward. People are very interested. They want to see us move into this area.”
If contract talks stumble and the guild does walk, there is talk that networks might expand their reality offerings just as they threatened four years ago when the last contract was up.
“They have old programs they can rerun, and on top of that they can quickly generate new reality programs,” said Howard Fabrick, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, practicing media labor and employment law. “There’s nothing I put past the creative and imaginative minds of the creators of these reality shows.”
It’s a strategy WGA officials said would be doomed.
John McLean, the WGA’s executive director and chief negotiator, pointed to ABC’s reliance on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” a couple of years ago. The network put the show on several times a week, only to drop it in 2001 when its ratings sank.
“It crashed that whole network,” McLean said. “They are still in last place because reality programming was at the core. They stopped developing, and they are now losing $300 million a year. They are the only network losing money.”