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The grim reality underlying 'reality' TV shows

November 19, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • The "unscripted" characters of "Pawn Stars": The Writers Guild says wage abuses go on behind the scenes.
The "unscripted" characters of "Pawn Stars": The… (History Channel )

The Writers Guild of America-East, which has been trying to unionize writers of "reality" shows for years now, is just out with a new report on the mistreatment of these wage slaves in the ever-burgeoning and fabulously profitable entertainment segment.

How profitable? The average margins at the cable channels that depend on what is prettily described as "nonfiction" television run as high as 60%, the guild says. And why not? Overhead is low, on-air talent comes cheap. Even a modestly budgeted cable scripted show -- the guild cites "Royal Pains," a very entertaining show in its fifth season on the USA Network -- can cost up to $2.5 million an episode; a nonfiction show on the History channel tops out at $425,000, and some are as cheap as $100,000.

Moreover, as the guild documents, the writers and producers on nonfiction shows are systematically cheated of their legal wages. About 84% of the writer/producers surveyed by the guild reported working more than 40 hours a week almost every week, and 85% said they never receive overtime pay. Nearly half said their timecards " 'never' accurately reflected hours worked. As my colleague Richard Verrier reported, the total in lost wages could come to $40 million a year. The guild contends that much of this is wage theft that violates state law in New York, where it conducted the survey.

The most interesting part of the report, in a prurient sense, is what it reveals about the work that goes into programs that typically are presented as slices of life caught on the hoof. The writer/producers start by creating a program's "story, including "character descriptions," scenes and situations for the interacting reality stars to interact, and even write dialogue. During the workday the crew preps the actors and arranges for takes and retakes. Then there's editing to shape into a narrative whatever incidents are still shapeless.

In other words, "reality" shows can be every bit as much concocted reality as scripted shows -- they just don't like to admit it.

The grim reality is how much exploitation takes place behind the cameras. The remedy is oversight by the guild, which has been succeeding, if slowly, in bringing more nonfiction production under its jurisdiction. In 2012 it reached agreements with Lion Television ("Cash Cab") and Optomen Productions ("Food Court Wars"). Dozens of other shows remain nonunion.

You may never have believed that these shows all reflected total reality, but there was much more you didn't know going on behind the scenes.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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