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Reality Check

The revolution in “unscripted” fare has Hollywood asking, Just what exactly is a writer? 7/15/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Emily Sinclair needed a line. As a story editor for Fox's mating reality show Paradise Hotel, she wanted potential contestants to boast about their own good looks.

“I just need you to tell me you're sexy and you'll do anything to prove it,” she told them. And that's the line she got back—over and over.

The reality revolution in broadcast and cable television has created a new Hollywood animal the industry is having a hard time classifying: “reality writer.” Unlike the scribes at sitcoms or dramas, these writers and “story editors” don't dream up characters from scratch. But they create dialog, stage situations and shape drama on some of the hottest shows in television.

And although they write for prime time TV, reality writers are generally paid a fraction of what they'd score at a sitcom or drama. They get few, if any, benefits and face grueling schedules.

Such working conditions were the centerpiece of charges in a recent lawsuit, the Writers Guild of America helped Sinclair and 11 other writers file against four reality producers and four networks—ABC, NBC, The WB and TBS—alleging “sweatshop” conditions and wage-law violations. Named in the suit were The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Are You Hot? and The Real Gilligan's Island.

The networks named in the suit were expected to vigorously defend themselves. The WGA, which currently counts 3,200 TV writers among its members, has been trying to unionize reality workers and has been authorized to negotiate for wages and benefits on behalf of nearly 1,000 reality writers, producers and editors.

The lawsuit reflects the ripple effect of reality TV, which has forever changed the economics of prime time television and is being felt most acutely in Hollywood's creative community. The genre shows no signs of weakening. In 2002, when broadcast networks set their fall schedules, reality accounted for 6.5 hours, according to Magna Global audience researcher Steve Sternberg. By last fall, networks were in reality overdrive, tripling the load to 20 hours.

It's not clear that the answer for reality writers and producers seeking parity in pay is to unionize. WGA's organizing campaign has stirred anger and fear among independent producers, some of whom are themselves members of the union. On the one hand, networks go to independent producers in part to keep costs low and avoid union issues. But reality TV has also meant salvation for indie producers, who have been virtually shut out of the drama and sitcom business.

Could Unions Hurt Reality?

One producer with three shows on the air believes the WGA “will hurt the people they are trying to help. Right now, it is fruitful out there, but that is going to stop.”

WGA-West President Dan Petrie Jr. says the union isn't looking to derail reality or demand the same pay as sitcom writers: “We believe it's possible for people to get health insurance, better pay, residuals without fundamentally putting these producers out of business.”

Reality is driven by its low price tag, costing 50%-70% less than scripted shows. If unions drive up costs and prompt networks to buy fewer shows, independent producers would take the hit. A cutback in shows could also crimp the number of reality jobs, which is currently the easiest way for writers to break into the TV business.

Writers say reality's clear success means that it's time for more money to trickle down to them. Sinclair, who has worked on CBS' Survivor, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and NBC's Three Wishes, says she doesn't make enough to pay for health insurance. “I really feel like we deserve better than this,” she says. “If we're creating all this incredible television for these people, why aren't we taken better care of?”

Susan Baronoff, who worked as a story producer on E!'s Diary of an Affair, contends that reality deserved some slack when the genre was relatively young in the 1990s: “I don't think you can overdiscipline things in their birth phase. But it's past that time.”

Reality is cheap. An hour-long drama can sell to the networks for about $2 million; a half-hour sitcom runs $1.3 million. Only proven reality successes like Survivor or The Apprentice command fees that high.

A basic one-hour broadcast-network reality show costs $750,000-$800,000. Low-end cable shows can cost as little as $100,000-$200,000. (When Trading Spaces was a top-rated show, TLC made it for $90,000 per episode.) A daily half-hour syndicated reality series can cost as little as $50,000 per episode.

The concept of a “reality writer” seems like an oxymoron. The characters, after all, are real people who generate most of their own dialog. But that doesn't mean writers aren't called on to influence the drama, guide film crews and even feed lines to contestants.

Instead of a sitcom writers' room, reality shows have a “story department.” At the low end is a logger, someone who reviews raw video and takes notes of interesting scenes. At the high end might be a supervising story producer, who runs a staff of five or 10.

In the middle are story editors or story producers. On a show like CBS' Big Brother, a story editor might review hundreds of hours of tape looking for characters and story arcs. On another, such as Survivor, story editors are on-site, interviewing contestants and trying to draw out specific lines of dialog.

The level of story editors' and writers' influence depends on the format of the show. Brian McCarthy has worked in two major reality genres: competitions and vérité style. At Fear Factor, the arc of each episode was dictated primarily by the stunts of the week. The hard part, he says, was establishing the six contestants as characters, giving them a little flavor.

His current job, supervising story producer for Bravo's upcoming The Daily News, is more challenging. Crews follow around reporters from the New York tabloid. McCarthy's team in Los Angeles hurriedly reviews the dozens of hours of tape, spots the interesting characters and storylines, and then advises field producers to concentrate more on certain reporters.

Molding the Story

Contestant-based reality shows offer less chance to mold the drama or story, McCarthy points out. “I would prefer to work on a documentary show where I have more say over how things fit.”

In a reality show, the drama of each episode rises and falls not with a preconceived plot but with how the footage is edited after the fact. Therein lies the skill of reality producers and editors, says Baronoff. In 2003, she reviewed tape shot at a group house in Chicago, as a story producer for NBC Universal's daily syndicated self-help show, Starting Over. The show features women resolving personal crises.

Typically, an episode touches on all the women. But the story staff decided to devote an entire episode solely to Josie, eight months pregnant and recently homeless, when the father tried to persuade her to leave the house, sending the other women in frenzy to stop her.

Sometimes writers create the drama on location. In one episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Michael, the antiques guy, falls in love with a large dining-room table. Off-screen, a story producer on the shopping trip prods him to buy it, knowing that another interior designer, Preston, would hate it. Story producers made sure Preston was in the dining room when the table arrived. As expected, Preston and Michael clashed, and the cameras were there to catch it.

“It's us being the puppeteers,” says Sinclair, who worked on Extreme Makeover: Home, “putting them in the right place and escalating it a little bit.”

Other shows can have a dark side, and Sinclair's horror show was ABC's much maligned Are You Hot? Her typical workday was 13 hours, starting at 6 a.m. Each weekend, story editors and producers went on the road, heading for hot clubs recruiting contestants or simply trying to goad people into Girls Gone Wild-style antics.

In the studio, Sinclair would pepper contestants with questions: What does it feel like not to be hot? Do you feel like a loser? “I was putting words in their mouths,” she says. The experience “made me feel really dirty.”

One reality producer, Katalyst Films TV chief Eli Holzman, sees the prospects for TV writers as pretty bleak for now. Holzman, whose credits include Project Greenlight and Beauty & the Geek, is periodically approached by wannabe writers about how to break into movies.

In the past, he has steered them toward television. “You could expect to get a good paycheck, get an agent and learn your craft from seasoned professionals.” Today, Holzman says, “that's no longer the case.”

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