Yesterday, the WGA announced plans to begin organizing writers working on reality television shows. Unlike writers working on traditional dramas or sitcoms, these writers haven’t been covered by the guild, which means they receive no health insurance, no residuals, and no set pay minimums.
As WGAw president Daniel Petrie put it in the press release:
The secret about reality TV isn’t that it’s scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.
Most readers of this site are familiar with one kind of writing when it comes to film and television. It happens on three-holed paper, with uppercase scene headers and neatly indented blocks for dialogue and parentheticals. But the truth is that much of the work a professional writer does in Hollywood takes on other formats: treatments and beat sheets, outlines and season patterns. Even in non-reality shows, a lot of the writing takes place before you type “FADE IN:”. So it’s a mistake to confuse “unscripted” with “unwritten.”
Many of the people who the WGA would like to organize are currently called producers — which is the norm in television. Be it The Simpsons or The Sopranos, many of the writers in television are called producers of some stripe: Executive Producer, Co-EP, Supervising Producer. Despite the title, there’s no doubt they’re writing. Every episode says “written by” or “teleplay by.”
In reality TV, there’s usually no “written by” credit. But it would be a mistake to think there’s no writing.
In addition to the obviously-scripted moments (someone has to tell Jeff Probst what to say), every episode needs writers to figure out what the hell the story is. Yes, video crews will capture the action, and a team of editors at Avids will ultimately cut the footage together, but the decisions about what actually happens in a given episode fall upon the writers, who have to tease plot, character development, comedy and tension out of hundreds of hours of “real life” taking place.
These people are, in fact, organizing reality. Which is why they deserve to be able to organize under the WGA umbrella. You can read more about the situation here.
UPDATE: After reading a note left in the comments section, I don’t want to understate the role editors often have shaping the “what happens” in reality TV. They’re often performing functions that would normally be the purview of writers; the question is, why aren’t they being compensated for it?