"America's Next Top Model" is getting ugly.
Writers of the hit reality show walked off the job for an hour Thursday and threatened to strike today, alleging that the show's producers had snubbed their request to join the Writers Guild of America, West.
The dispute comes at a delicate time for the new CW network, which is relying on the hit reality show created by supermodel Tyra Banks to dress up its inaugural lineup.
The series debuts Sept. 20 on the CW, forged by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Television from the remnants of the WB and UPN networks. Only the first few episodes have been completed for the series' seventh cycle.
In a low-key protest outside their West Los Angeles offices, the writers wore red "United We Stand" T-shirts with the writers guild's logo and handed out fliers titled "Free to Be Union? Not at the CW's America's Next Top Model," a play on the network's motto, "Free to Be."
The writers contend that they are key to the show's success and should get benefits and protections similar to those enjoyed by their peers in movies and scripted television.
"They want a guild contract, but their employer won't give it to them," said writers guild President Patric M. Verrone, "This is how they are showing their solidarity."
A spokesman for the CW declined to comment. Ken Mok, president of Anisa Productions Inc., the show's producer, said in a statement that the writers guild was seeking to circumvent federal rules that allow secret ballot elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
"There is absolutely no ill will or rancor from anyone in 'America's Next Top Model' toward the employees in their activities with their WGA," Mok said. "All of us respect their legal rights to pursue a path that they feel best serves them."
Even though reality shows purport to capture events as they happen, many employ writers to feed lines to participants, plot out story lines and edit interviews. With the "America's Next Top Model" walkout, the writers guild signaled that it was stepping up its campaign to organize workers in the burgeoning genre.
"This will be the first of many actions like it," Verrone said.
Last year, the writers guild backed two lawsuits that accused producers of exploiting workers in reality TV.
Reality producers dispute allegations that writers are mistreated. They say writing for a reality show isn't the same as working on a scripted program.
The "America's Next Top Model" dispute began this month when 12 writers on the show signed cards seeking to be represented by the writers guild. The writers affirmed their support in a letter to Mok.
But attorneys for the production company disputed the guild's claim and suggested that the guild hold a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
"If the NLRB decides that the WGA has the exclusive representation of the employees, we would be happy to sit down and negotiate with them," Mok said.
Guild officials allege, however, that the production company's goal is to buy time and intimidate employees.