‘Reality’ show writers, under the radar, are focus of union effort

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Alex Weprin

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We hate to break it to you but your favorite reality show has a writing staff, just as surely as your favorite scripted drama or comedy does.

The Writer’s Guild of America East is embarking on a campaign to draw attention to writers and story producers on reality shows and unscripted series, starting with a white paper released yesterday that sought to show that writers and producers for those shows lost an average of $30,000 per year in unpaid overtime work, and lack  benefits.

According to the WGAE survey, 84 percent of writers and producers on these shows work overtime, but 85 percent of those don't get paid for it.

“People don’t realize how much writing in particular goes into these shows,” WGAE executive director Lowell Peterson told Capital in a phone interview yesterday. “They are heavily written, everything is written, there is a narrative arc that gets written, the characters are written out in some detail, there are story beats, they have to make sure the story is scripted out in a way to make it go forward, and in a lot of cases the dialogue is scripted—not all cases, but in a lot of cases—and that is why it is good TV.”

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The Guild's ultimate goal is of course to sign these writers up for union memberships. But they're also trying to get the laws on the books pertaining to overtime pay enforced, and to develop standards that can be used across the industry.

“The work that they do is very similar to the stuff that our current members do,” Peterson says. “We have a lot of people in public TV or news that do similar work, we have a lot of people in documentaries, and even a lot of people in scripted TV… that is sort of a similar market.”

The union has been aggressive in drumming up support from elected officials as well, with Rep. Jerrold Nadler and New York City Public Advocate-Elect Letitia James on board.

“I think it is a pretty compelling case, we sat down with [Nadler and James] and said ‘here’s the story,’ and they said, ‘well, what can we do?’” Peterson said. “It is not like things are bad because there isn’t money it, there is a lot of money in it, it just isn’t being directed to the people that make the shows.”

The WGAE is currently involved in a handful of other high-profile disputes, including one with staffers at NBC’s Peacock Productions and at ITV Studios America. At NBC, staffers at Peacock voted on whether to join the union, but the results are locked, pending an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board. NBC does have the power to unlock the votes if it were to try. At ITV staffers have voted to join the union, though the company has yet to negotiate a contract.