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Reality TV cast/crew are not unionized. Will this change?

Unions representing Hollywood actors And writers They have been on strike for months due to better pay and working conditions. This week, Marvel VFX staff voted to unionize for similar reasons. Is it time for the reality TV cast and crew to follow suit?

The ongoing business disruption has led network television to rely more than usual on reality shows like “Big Brother.” An example. Although it usually airs during the summer months, CBS is extending this season into November, making it the longest season in the show’s history.

With these series having smaller budgets than their scripted counterparts despite their high viewership ratings, it is inevitable that the debate about what constitutes a fair workplace environment will expand into reality television.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Andy Dehnart has been the leading journalist covering unscripted TV news on his site. Reality is Blurred. soon colonmakes a compelling case that workers both in front of and behind the camera need the protection a union can provide.

“Reality TV is not a fringe piece of Hollywood, filling in gaps in the schedule before returning to its own cave, it is essential content for networks and streaming platforms,” he writes. And yet: “These companies have successfully convinced us that not only are their cast members unworthy of labor protections, they are not even worthy of human kindness.”

Here and there, you can point to shows that buck the trend. “RuPaul’s Race Car” didn’t start out as a syndicated show, but happened Since 2014 – for the crew. Casting? There is no union.

“This genre is very mature,” Dehnart said. It’s time to start acting like it.

Here’s the rest of our conversation.

Q: Shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are one-off examples. A broader unionization effort means that, in theory, all shows are unionized, like their scripted counterparts.

A: Absolutely. There was a movement in the 2000s where the WGA was trying to get involved as writers. Story producers, of course, do not write scripts. But they combine images and create stories from existing materials. And in the last writers’ strike, the WGA went on strike in an attempt to unite reality TV story producers, but later abandoned the strike as a compromise. This is, to my knowledge, the last official industry-wide initiative.

Question: The episodes we watch are not just the result of: We filmed people and here is the footage. You say there are similar creative demands to writing in unscripted shows.

A: That’s true. And the challenge of getting people to understand the craft of reality TV – let alone support the labor movement behind it – is to create a sense that what’s happening on the show is real and that everything “just happens” and is therefore easy to produce.

But it’s no less complex than scripted TV, perhaps even more so. As one story maker described it, it’s like taking broken pieces of glass and turning them into a beautiful mosaic. Because there’s a lot of material to work with, but you can’t control or change it like a writer on a scripted series can.

So it’s a completely different skill set and one that the public in general and even some people in the unscripted world don’t appreciate.

Question: You use the word “exploitation” in your column. What are some of the abuses that a union could theoretically create barriers to prevent?

A: Especially for the crew, this is a freelance job and workers have little protection. So most of the time they just need a job and accept some unfair conditions like working long hours without getting paid overtime. People feel they are being taken advantage of, but there are no external standards set by the union that must be adhered to. They feel like they can’t back out because they rely on recommendations to get their next job as crew members.

And I think we’re starting to hear more horror stories for gamers lately. “Love is Blind” case It is a fascinating example. (Players claim they were given no water, alcohol and were underpaid.)

From left to right: Cameron Hamilton and Lauren Speed ​​in a scene from the Netflix romantic reality series "Love is blind."

They talk about being locked in hotel rooms, not only without contact with the outside world, but also without some basic knowledge. And the way the show is produced, it looks like they’re just hanging out in this beautiful house. It doesn’t show them leaving the set, being taken to a hotel, and locked there by the producers – who were presumably on duty all night and had to make sure the cast didn’t leave and talk to each other.

Here’s another example: An incident occurred a few years ago during Season 39 of “Survivor.” unwanted touching by one contestant to another. They filmed the season, it took six months to air, and neither CBS nor the production company seemed to think there was a problem. But after fierce backlash from viewers and critics, CBS finally said: OK, we’re going to have a rule that says unwanted touching is prohibited. There will also be someone on set you can report your concerns to.

It’s ridiculous and appalling that this wasn’t available before December 2019. And I think that speaks to the fact that there is no standard of care. And honestly, from what I’ve seen in my few appearances on “Survivor” and what the actors have said, “Survivor” is actually one of the best shows in terms of the care it takes for kids. cast and crew members.

These conditions for each show can be unique because the way each reality show is produced is different. More corners are cut on low-budget shows. So there are all kinds of opportunities for exploitation. There are ways to compensate people, to create protection, at least with unionized production: Yes, we have to take a meal break at this certain time.

But there are currently no such protections in unscripted TV industrywide.

"Survivor" Season 45 starts next week.

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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