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Writers' union seeks to infiltrate, organize reality TV

By Wade Paulsen, 08/13/2003 

Does 'unscripted TV' really mean that no writers are used? The Writers Guild of America doesn't think so, and it wants a cut from the boom in unscripted TV. According to the Hollywood Reporter, nonfiction shows -- including reality TV shows -- have traditionally been nonunion, even if writers are used. But the WGA, the union which represents Hollywood's powerful writers, is attempting to change that.

Among the WGA's tactics is one called "salting," which permits union members to work on such shows (normally a violation of union rules) in return for their promise to help organize the other writers on the shows. The WGA is also offering amnesty for union members who have worked on the shows in the past and a waiver of the union's $2,500 initiation fee for nonunion writers on the shows who join up.

In addition, the WGA promises to make unionization of nonfiction shows a priority in its next negotiations with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. On the other hand, the contentious negotiations between the WGA and the producers in 2001 are given credit for helping to launch the boom in reality TV, as networks greenlighted a number of unscripted projects to ensure that they would have new product in the event of a strike -- so too tough of a negotiation stance could be counter-productive for the union.

The most interesting figure is the WGA's estimate that nonfiction TV shows generated $4.2 billion of net revenue, with total production and overhead costs of only $2.23 billion -- leaving net profit of $1.98 billion after rounding. Of course, most of this profit doesn't come from cooking shows or documentaries, so if the WGA is focused on the cash (as everyone else in Hollywood is), it will have to go after the reality shows in its organizing drive. We'll let you know whether the scripters have much luck in unionizing the unscripted masses.


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