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'The Biggest Loser' set picketed by crew, labor officials

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees calls the rally to protest a decision to bring in replacement workers to resume production on the popular NBC reality show.

November 16, 2010|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times

The latest effort by Hollywood trade unions to gain a stronger foothold in the reality-TV business erupted in protest Monday when more than 100 crew members and labor officials picketed the Calabasas ranch where the show "The Biggest Loser" is filmed.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which is waging a strike against the popular series, called the rally to protest the decision by its producers to bring in replacement workers to resume production on the NBC show.

Production on the series halted last week when about 50 crew members walked off the job after they failed to secure union representation and health and pension benefits. The Directors Guild of America and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have contracts covering some people who work on the show.

On Monday, producers of "The Biggest Loser" attempted to resume shooting the 11th season of the show by hiring new workers, but they were met with shouts of "Scab!" and "You should be ashamed!" by angry crew members. The protesters began picketing at 3:45 a.m. outside the gates of King Gillette Ranch on West Mulholland Highway to confront the replacement workers and production executives as they reported to work. Protests were also held at production offices in Redondo Beach.

"It's very sad for us to know that they have a replacement crew for us," said Vanessa Holtgrewe, the show's director of photography, carrying a sign saying, "Sign a contract." "I love this show and I love this production, but I couldn't go back knowing my crew members were being fired."

The protest was unusual for IATSE, which represents technical workers in film and television and typically avoids public showdowns with producers, especially when it involves a popular network TV show like "The Biggest Loser."

Representatives of NBC and the show's producers, Reveille, 3Ball and 25/7, all declined to comment.

The action reflects a more aggressive stance taken by Matt Loeb, who took over as head of the union in 2008 from longtime leader Tom Short.

Loeb has made it a top priority to organize nonunion labor in the film and television industries, including the fast-growing reality-TV sector. This year IATSE secured a pact to cover crews that work on "The Bachelor," "School Pride" and other reality programs.

Officials of IATSE said they targeted "The Biggest Loser" because it represents one of the last high-rated reality series on network TV that are not covered under the union's contract. The union has contracts for such popular network series as "American Idol," "America's Got Talent" and "Dancing With the Stars," but it does not yet cover many of the reality programs that have proliferated on basic cable.

All of the crew members on "The Biggest Loser" signed cards last week asking to be represented by the union, but IATSE said the demand for recognition was rebuffed.

"This is a high-profile show with a strong crew that is facing an obstructive employer," said Mike Miller, who heads IATSE's West Coast operations and who joined the picket line Monday. "This isn't about greed or money. This is about health benefits and pensions for the crew and their families. Below-the-line workers don't get any less sick."

The strike could add momentum to ongoing efforts by the major Hollywood unions to expand their reach into reality TV, which has become a significant moneymaker for the networks as a low-cost alternative to scripted programming.

Although most of the network reality shows are covered under various union contracts, many of the shows in basic cable are still produced nonunion.

The Directors Guild of America and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have been working to organize more reality shows in recent years.

The Writers Guild of America has backed class-action lawsuits against reality-TV producers over working conditions and mounted an unsuccessful strike against the producers of "America's Next Top Model" in 2006.

Now airing its 10th season, "The Biggest Loser" is a mainstay of NBC's lineup. The show challenges and encourages overweight contestants to shed pounds in a safe manner through diet and exercise as they compete for a grand prize of $250,000.

Although production resumed Monday on episodes set to air in January, it was unclear how disruptive the protests were.

About two dozen replacement workers drove into the ranch, but a catering truck that was providing food for the crew refused to cross the picket line, as did two trainers on the show.

The show's host, Alison Sweeney, who is a member of AFTRA, has expressed support for the crew but did not join the strike. Sweeney has a no-strike provision in her contract stipulating that she perform her duties even in the event of a strike by another union.

"AFTRA wholeheartedly supports IATSE in their efforts to organize the production crew of 'The Biggest Loser,' the actors union said in a statement. "We believe that our colleagues in the crew also deserve the benefits, protections and good wages provided by a union contract."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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