Picketing outside the offices of America’s Next Top Model has ended, drawing to a close one chapter of the first-ever reality TV-related strike. The story producers who were picketing have, according to reports, started looking for other jobs, although the campaign to unionize them continues.
To summarize the story so far: in the summer of 2005, the Writers Guild of America West started a campaign to unionize reality show story producers, and helped some of those story producers file suit against production companies and networks for ‘gross violations of California’s labor laws governing payment of overtime, wages, and meal periods,’ according to a WGA press release.
The WGA refers to these people as ‘reality storytellers,’ and the campaign’s website says they ‘include anyone who plays a significant role in story creation,’ from editors to segment producers to story producers. RealityUnited.com notes that ‘the people in the roles mentioned above are often called writers internally,’ and that name has stuck in media coverage of the strike against Top Model, including my own.
Story producers have impossibly difficult jobs, and are vital to reality programming. They are responsible for crafting engaging narratives from the hundreds of hours of footage shot over the course of production. When reality show cast members blame the editing for the way they are portrayed on TV, they are primarily blaming the story producers, who often select the scenes that make it into a broadcast.
Some story producers physically write scripts that show how footage should be assembled, and calling them ‘writers’ is therefore probably accurate. The big difference, of course, is that the content of their scripts is coming from pre-existing material. They’re not constructing it from their imagination, as writers on sitcoms or dramas do.
While some producers and networks betray our trust in the genre by manipulating people or footage, most unscripted programming is genuinely real. The primary reason the genre has exploded is that viewers connect more intimately with subjects they know are just like them, not fantasies constructed by Hollywood.
Thus, referring to those involved in this campaign as ‘writers’ has expanded consequences. It influences the public’s perception of their jobs, as it seems to be oxymoronic when we start talking about ‘unscripted’ programming and the ‘writers’ who produce the episodes.
The public is growing increasingly skeptical of unscripted programming, and is all too willing to write it off immediately as fake. When the public – from average viewers to snarky bloggers – learns that the genre employs writers, the assumption is often immediate and unrelenting: ‘See? Reality TV is fake.’
There’s the problem: if a show is not real, then it must be scripted and fake. And if the talented writers, represented by the Writers Guild, work on the shows, that’s some damning evidence for someone who wants to argue that reality-based programming is fiction.
Of course, journalists are writers, and they’re not crafting fiction, or at least, most of them aren’t. But journalists work in a medium whose audience views it as a presentation of truth. Trust may have been eroded by the Stephen Glasses and James Freys, but there isn’t a crisis in credibility as there so often seems to be with reality-based programs.
Story producers and editors deserve representation, and if their claims are true, they’ve been treated shamefully by the production companies and networks that profit so significantly from their talents. Unscripted programming would not be possible without them.
But if people with a diverse array of positions are going to be lumped together as ‘writers’ and represented by the Writers Guild, both the writers and the union need to do a better job of communicating the nature of their jobs to the public.