The unions representing Hollywood actors and writers have been on strike for months over better pay and working conditions. This week, Marvel VFX workers voted to unionize for similar reasons. Is it time for reality TV cast and crew to follow suit?
The ongoing work stoppage has prompted network television to rely on reality programming more than usual, with “Big Brother” as one example. Though it typically airs over the summer, this season CBS is extending it into November, making it the longest season in the show’s history.
With high viewer ratings but smaller budgets than their scripted counterparts, it’s inevitable that the conversation about what constitutes a fair workplace environment has expanded to reality television.
For nearly a quarter century, Andy Dehnart has been the preeminent journalist covering unscripted TV at his site Reality Blurred. In a recent column, he makes a persuasive case that workers both in front of and behind the camera are in need of protections that a union might be able to provide.
“Reality TV is not a fringe part of Hollywood, filling gaps in the schedule before slinking back into its cave, but cornerstone content for networks and streaming platforms,” he writes. And yet: “These corporations have successfully convinced us that not only are cast members not worthy of labor protections, they’re not even worthy of human decency.”
Here and there, you can point to shows that have bucked the trend. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” did not start out as a union show, but it has been since 2014 — for the crew. The cast? No union.
“This genre is very mature,” said Dehnart. It’s time to start acting like it.
Here’s more from our conversation.
Q: Shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are one-off examples. A broader unionizing effort would mean, in theory, all shows are union — like their scripted counterparts.
A: Exactly. There was a movement back in the 2000s when the WGA was trying to incorporate story producers as writers. Story producers don’t write scripts, of course. But they assemble footage and create stories out of existing material. And what happened in the last writer’s strike is the WGA went in with the intention of unionizing reality TV story producers, but then dropped it as a concession. That is the last formal industrywide attempt that I am aware of.
Q: The episodes we watch are not just the result of: We filmed people and here’s the footage. You’re saying there are creative demands involved in unscripted shows that are similar to writing.
A: That’s right. And the challenge of getting people to understand the craft of reality TV — let alone support the labor movement behind it — is that there’s a sense that what’s transpiring on the show is real and it’s all “just happening” and therefore it’s easy to produce.
But it’s just as complicated, maybe more so, than scripted TV. As one story producer described it, it’s like taking pieces of shattered glass and having to turn them into a beautiful mosaic. Because you have all this material to work with, but you can’t control it or change it the way a writer on a scripted show can.
So it’s an entirely different skill set and it’s one that the public at large, and even some people in the unscripted world, don’t appreciate.
Q: You use the word “exploitation” in your column. What are some of the abuses that a union could theoretically create guardrails to prevent?
A: For the crew especially, it’s a freelance business and the workers have very little protection. So a lot of times they just need a job and will accept certain unfair conditions, like working long hours without getting paid overtime. People feel like they’re being taken advantage of but there are no external standards set by a union that shows have to abide by. So as crew, they feel like they can’t push back because they’re relying on referrals to get their next job.
And I think for cast members, we’ve started to hear more of the horror stories recently. The “Love is Blind” lawsuit is a fascinating example. (Cast members claim they were denied water, plied with alcohol and underpaid.)
They’re talking about being locked in their hotel rooms, not only without contact with the outside world, but without certain basics. And the way the show is produced, it makes it look like they’re just hanging out in this nice house. It does not show them leaving the set, being driven to a hotel and being locked in there by producers — producers who presumably are on duty all night and have to monitor and make sure the cast members aren’t leaving and talking to each other.
Here’s another example: A few years ago, during Season 39 of “Survivor,” there was unwanted touching by one contestant to another. They filmed the season, it took six months to air and neither CBS nor the production company seemed to think there was a problem. It was only after there was this severe backlash by viewers and critics that CBS finally said: OK, we’re going to have a rule that says no unwanted touching. And we’re also going to have someone on set that you can report concerns to.
The fact that this didn’t exist before December of 2019 is absurd and appalling. And I think it speaks to the fact that there’s no standard of care. And honestly, from what I’ve seen having been on location with “Survivor” a few times — and just from what cast members have talked about — “Survivor” is actually one of the better shows, in terms of the care it gives to its cast and crew members.
For every show, these circumstances can be unique, because every reality show is different in the way it’s produced. More corners get cut on shows with low budgets. So there’s all kinds of opportunities for exploitation. At least with a unionized production, there are methods for compensating people and creating protections like: Yes, we must have a meal break at this certain time.
But right now, there’s no such protection industrywide in unscripted TV.
(Nina Metz is a Chicago Tribune critic who covers TV and film.)
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