Reality TV Won’t Fix What’s Broken About Hollywood Economics
2:22 PM EDT on May 4, 2023
As of Tuesday, the Writers Guild of America is on strike. Their proposals are aimed at making the work of writing TV a more sustainable career in a number of ways—by guaranteeing weekly pay, minimum employment guarantees, viewer-based streaming residuals, and regulating the use of artificial intelligence, among other things. After six weeks of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers went nowhere, WGA writers walked out and Hollywood film and television production ground to a halt.
The writers are taking a big risk here, but an idea making its way around the internet points to a bigger, broader threat. It holds that the writers strike in 2007 was responsible for the rise in reality TV, and Donald Trump’s election, and the decay of American intellectualism.
The logic behind that makes sense, but only if you don’t look too closely. The idea is that writers of scripted shows walk out, and then networks invest more heavily in unscripted shows that don’t require those writers. The biggest problem with this argument is that it’s not true. American Idol and Dancing With The Stars were the top-rated primetime shows in the year of the last WGA action, but both shows also held those spots in the 2006-07 season, before the strike. In fact, American Idol occupied that top role all the way back to the 2005-06 season, and was in second place before that. American taste in programming was trending toward this new style of entertainment. The networks responded just as they might have been expected to respond—by flooding their schedules with more.
This argument also reveals a fallacy that has made a lot of money for those networks. It presumes that the workers who create the unscripted programs don't deserve the same labor protections as those who work on scripted ones, because those shows require less talent to produce. Reality TV is the product of expert storytellers, strategic producers, and cast members who are uniquely talented at conveying their personalities on screen while they eat bugs or design dresses or try to fall in love according to the rules of their specific show.
It’s true that unscripted workers aren’t protected by unions in the same way that scripted workers are, and that makes these shows easier to produce, both when networks’ hands are tied by the AMPTP’s refusal to come to the negotiating table and in general. In a 2020 poll, more than 80 percent of nonfiction TV workers who responded didn’t have health insurance and were ineligible for overtime pay. Organizations like Nonfiction Workers are attempting to unionize with the WGA, but for the most part, those efforts have dwindled. One notable exception was that earlier this year, the workers behind the Food Network shows The Kitchen and Trisha’s Southern Kitchen unionized.
If unscripted producers are treated like garbage, the cast members are treated even worse. Last week, Nick Thompson and Jeremy Hartwell, who appeared on Love Is Blind's second season on Netflix, announced that they founded a nonprofit called the UCAN Foundation to advocate for the rights and mental health of reality TV cast members. Thompson alleges that the producers of the show denied him and his fellow cast members food and water and threatened them with fines of up to $50,000 if they left the show or broke any of the “rules” the producers had made for them. In an Instagram post responding to a “random internet person” who told him that he signed up for this treatment, Thompson said “I lost 15 pounds in the three weeks in the Pods and Mexico from limited access to food and water. [...] In Mexico, producers withheld [that] my partner experienced a panic attack and sent me into the hotel room to film anyway. [...] Finally, the pay equates to roughly $7.14 per hour and the promise of a social media following. That’s it. [...] I did not sign up for this.”
Love Is Blind cast members are paid—not a lot, but they are paid—but cast members on Bachelor franchise shows are not. The leads get paid, and if unpaid cast make it onto spinoff shows like Bachelor In Paradise, they’re paid variable amounts. Former Bachelor cast members have talked about never being left alone, even when they go to the bathroom, or being denied access to the bathroom altogether until they behaved the way producers wanted.
Production companies and networks can treat unscripted cast members like this because they aren’t considered “talent,” even though their faces and personalities comprise a full season’s worth of entertainment for the networks and deliver millions of dollars in ad revenue. Former Bachelor Nick Viall, who was on four different Bachelor franchise shows, said in his podcast last week that people cast on reality TV are “talentless people” because “they're not comedians or writers or actors or singers or performers.” It seems like he’s arguing that because they are not writers or comedians or any other kind of worker previously deemed as “talented” in the field, that they are less worthy, or not worthy at all—worthy of access to food or water on set, or a pay rate commensurate with the amount of money their labor brings in for the networks that air their programs.
As a podcast producer, I have a lot of experience working in a medium that has been considered “easy to do.” Just get a mic and start talkin’, baby! The result of this kind of thinking is that podcast producers’ work is chronically undervalued, both socially and monetarily. When producers aren’t named in the credits of shows or identified publicly as co-creators of their work, you can bet they’re being screwed on their paychecks, too.
Here is a rule that applies to basically every bit of entertainment a person can consume: If something looks or sounds easy, in any medium, that usually means a lot of fucking work went into making it seem that way. That's true of podcasts, and it's also true of reality TV. Even if unscripted programming was considered at one point to be a solution to the labor problem, it now looks more like a reflection of the entertainment industry’s broader problem with labor. It is a fact that the programs that these networks sell do not—could not—exist without the labor of people on both sides of the camera, or microphone. As much as the people sitting atop this system might wish for it to be otherwise, the truth of the matter is that networks cannot outrun labor. They would have nothing to sell without it. The solution to this fundamental problem is not to turn to other people whose labor is valued lower than others. The only solution that deserves to be called a solution is to treat everyone better. This has proven to be a very hard lesson to learn.