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Really Fake, Really Hurting

June 26, 2005

They toil, unknown and unrecognized, in what they claim are appalling conditions. Some say they are forced to work three or four days at a stretch with only an hour and a half sleep at night, while others put in 23-hour days in 100-degree heat with no overtime.

These unfortunate slaves, who make a Vietnamese shoe factory worker's life look easy, are Hollywood's newest and fastest-growing sub-genre: writers on television reality shows.

Tired of what they say is exploitation, they are emerging from anonymity to seek union representation, and in doing so they have blown the whistle on a fact widely known but unspoken since the first episode of "Survivor" went on the air. So-called unscripted shows, it emerges, are scripted after all. And there are now so many of them that they require an army of about 1,300 writers to supply the plots, episode outlines and story lines for the contestants to follow.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has bothered to think about it that Paris Hilton's ad-libs and impromptu reactions in "The Simple Life" are carefully scripted in advance. But it is revealing to learn that each episode of some of the popular "unscripted" shows is based on outlines of up to 100 pages, with a predetermined beginning, middle and end.

According to the Writers Guild of America West, which wants to represent them, the people who write reality show scripts are the poor and downtrodden of Hollywood, typically earning about $2,000 per week less than their $3,477-per-week counterparts on scripted comedy and drama shows, with no pensions, health insurance or residuals. Reality television, says guild President Dan Petrie Jr., is "a 21st century telecommunications industry sweatshop."

Tellingly, reality show producers, who have so far refused to acknowledge the demands, will not dignify the scribes with the designation of "writer." Instead, they are "story producers," "story editors" and "segment producers." The producers contend that the costs of operating a reality show with writers under a union contract would drive all but the most successful shows out of business.

Both sides have a point, but if the writers succeed in their bid for union recognition, it may not be long before contestants, too, start to want similar protection.

And why not? Surely those who are voted off the island, or who don't get hired by Donald Trump, or don't win the contest to marry a millionaire are entitled to union representation as well.

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