Reality TV is always in the news because, well, reality TV stars. However, it’s recently been in the news as an industry.
Reality TV production in the UK has slowed down dramatically, leading to nearly 45% of reality TV production freelancers out of work, and 75% struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, the Writers Guild of America strike in Hollywood has caused major networks to rely on reality shows, since they don’t require writers. As conflicting forces pull the reality TV biz in different directions, we should consider affects on the industry’s freelancers.
What This Means For Freelancers
Not everyone who works in reality television is a freelancer—but many are. Over 80% of reality TV’s professionals are freelancers. Some reality TV workers have unions—editors, for example—but others—such as story editors—do not. Those without unions are ineligible for overtime, sick leave, or grievance procedures. This is standard for all non-unionized freelancers. What’s more unique to reality television is that the freelancers jump between gigs so frequently that they never qualify for healthcare through their employers, which leaves them uninsured. Furthermore, production companies can negotiate weekly rates, which means workers aren’t paid extra for 18 hour days. And the people who make reality TV are left out of the profits. So, there are quite a few reasons why reality TV freelancers might want a better deal.
During the 2007 WGA strike, nearly 100 reality shows returned or premiered to help networks fill out their lineups—including the debut of the iconic Real Housewives franchise. The 1988 Writers Guild strike lasted 153 days and gave us shows such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted. Could the current WGA strike mean a boom for reality TV, and if so, does this mean freelancers might benefit?
Maybe and probably not. Unfortunately, while the two recent strikes led to a rise in reality TV, it didn’t lead to better compensation. Indeed, part of the appeal for networks is that the shows are cheaper to produce, so they’re eager to fight any attempt to make the shows more expensive. Furthermore, we can’t expect reality TV to today to follow the same trends of 2007. Because streamers have made it easier for viewers to binge content, the executives aren’t in a rush to generate more—which means they could have even more bargaining power against reality TV workers.
The Future of Reality TV Freelancers
Not all freelancers want to join a union, but many do. The interests of those who make scripted television align the interests of reality television workers; both sets want a way to benefit from the streaming boom, without all the profits going to those at the very top. In 2007, the WGA tried to add reality TV and animation writers to its union, but it had to drop the demand. Still, efforts persist; workers at a small number of production companies have successfully unionized with Writers Guild of America, East. Recently, 20% of workers at BSTV Entertainment announced they wanted to join the guild, too. This is an exciting step, but networks and production companies are fighting it, which leaves us unsure about the future.
I’m a big fan of UnREAL, a scripted television show about how miserable working in reality TV is. Until I began researching for this article, I didn’t realize just how realistic the show was. This is a unique and pivotal time for reality TV—perhaps it’s time to talk about how to cut its freelancers in on the deal.
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