Reality Intrudes on Entertainment Chiefs - Broadcasting & Cable

Reality Intrudes on Entertainment Chiefs

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A reality TV writer rushed the stage at a breakfast panel featuring the entertainment chiefs from the six broadcast networks Tuesday in New York, demanding that the networks and TV studios provide reality writers with benefits equal to their counterparts on sitcoms and dramas.

“Would you go back to your offices and do what you know is the right thing to do?” Susan Baranoff, who has worked on shows including Starting Over and Diary of an Affair, said to the startled network executives.

At the same time, other writers and representatives from the Writers Guild of America’s East and West Coast divisions passed out bright blue flyers to the hundreds of people gathered for the International Radio & Television Society Foundation breakfast at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, asking the industry “to begin to respect us the way it does those who make sitcoms and dramas.” Reality writers, the flyer said, are denied health and pension benefits and do not receive any residual payments from syndication.

Within minutes, Baranoff and her colleagues were ushered out into the halls and the panel discussion, featuring Fox’s Peter Liguori, The WB’s David Janollari, ABC’s Stephen McPherson, UPN’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC’s Kevin Reilly and CBS’ Nina Tassler and led by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, continued.

The writers, who say they have gathered more than 1,000 reality writers to join their cause, are demanding that WGA benefits, which include health insurance, be extended to reality shows.

The group says it has been trying to get meetings with the networks and studios for months to no avail. Now, they say, they will take their protests to public gatherings, such as the IRTS breakfast and a recent reality panel discussion at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, where they also protested. “We want a career, not a series of jobs,” Baranoff says.

To date, reality TV writers have not enjoyed the same benefits as scripted writers because of differing opinions on their roles in the shows. Producers say reality programming does not require the same level of writing, but rather more editing and story development. Also, reality shows are considerably less expensive to produce and license, and extending benefits to crews could ratchet up the cost.

But the WGA members want equal treatment. “We do write scripts and stories. We are writers,” says James Gutierrez, who has worked on The Mole and Blind Date.

The network executives say they are sympathetic, but say that reality has settled into a more supporting role in network prime time. “We understand their desire to put the issue on the table, but the genre is much healthier now,” says NBC’s Reilly. “When there was a feeding frenzy, there was a lot of needs to be fed, but it has settled down.”

“We all agree in fair labor practices,” said Fox’s Liguori, but noted that his network and its rivals were putting on less reality.

So far, none of the network executives have met with WGA representatives on the issue.

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