The last time the Writers Guild of America went on strike, in 2007, the union proposed representing reality TV story producers: the people who work in post-production and shape stories, taking fragments and assembling them into narrative.
Two days before negotiations began, the WGA dumped reality TV, cementing the idea that it was cheap, disposable trash, and the people who make it unworthy of even being included in conversations about basic labor protections.
This year, studios and streamers actively leveraged that idea again, almost a quarter-century after Survivor, and 31 years after The Real World.
Before the strikes, they were using reality TV not only as a threat against WGA action: Do you really want more reality TV?, even though it’s a myth that the last strike led to a reality TV surge.
Now, though, amid the record-breaking heat and waves of natural disasters, people are fighting back against one disaster they can control: giant corporations who care about nothing but making even more money, so Wall Street can get even richer, leaving the people who actually do the work behind.
As the WGA and SAG-AFTRA fight for the future of their professions against some comically inept villains, the labor movement has also come, improbably and finally, to reality TV.
Reality TV is not a fringe part of Hollywood, filling gaps in the schedule before slinking back into its cave, but cornerstone content for networks and streaming platforms.
Since the 2007-2008 strike, we’ve seen some reality TV shows unionize.
In 2014, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s crew went on strike for one day and secured, according to their union IATSE, “health and pension benefits, working conditions and wages retroactive to date of hire, as well as enhanced daily and weekend turnaround and triple time after 15.” (Turnaround indicates how much of a break there is between one workday and the next.)
While Magical Elves cancelled its production of Netflix’s Nailed It halfway through when its crew attempted to unionize, the show returned this year with a title card declaring it was “made under the jurisdiction of IATSE,” which represents more than 168,000 people who work behind the scenes crafting our entertainment.
Few reality TV shows have such representation, though. Among those that do, there is a significant division. On RuPaul’s Drag Race, while the crew has union protections and contracts, the artists who appear in front of the camera—the drag queens who are subjected to an absurd contract—do not.
Perhaps this idea sounds absurd to you, especially for other shows, whether that’s Survivor or The Kardashians or House Hunters. Why should someone on a reality TV show have union representation? They have no talent! Aren’t they just getting a fun experience and exposure by just being themselves, after all?
No, not really. They sign insanely lopsided contracts that give them no control and barely any compensation. Some people quit their jobs to be on a show, while others have turned being on a show into a full-time job, like The Challenge and Bachelor Nation’s regulars.
Right now, they have no advocates and no protection, and that’s something that needs to change. Alas, when this has been suggested, the idea—of, say, The Bachelor’s women unionizing—is treated like a joke.
That, however, is the mindset massive, multi-billion-dollar corporations rely on to continue to exploit us all.
These corporations have successfully convinced us that not only are cast members not worthy of labor protections, they’re not even worthy of human decency. Just read the claims in the Love is Blind lawsuit, which, among other things, points out how the cast wasn’t paid their small stipends more than a year after filming.
Love is Blind producers Kinetic Content told The L.A. Times, “The wellbeing of our participants is of paramount importance to Kinetic. We have rigorous protocols in place to care for each person before, during, and after filming.”
What evidence do we have of this, though? Who can a reality TV star turn to if they feel like they’re mistreated? Survivor didn’t even have a way to confidentially report harassment—or rules against harassment—until 2020.
Even if production companies and on-the-ground producers do care, and do their very best, they’re often working under time and budget constraints that mean .
And even if you think it’s fine for fame-seeking people to be plied with alcohol and locked in their hotel rooms without any connection to the outside world, shouldn’t they at least get paid when they do their work for one of the biggest media companies on the planet?
Is looking for love on Love is Blind actually work? Is Survivor? What about appearing on Jeopardy?
For sure, a reality TV cast member is not doing the same kind of intellectual labor as a teacher working to educate students under a fascist regime, nor the same kind of physical labor as a person who goes to work in an Amazon warehouse every day.
But to use the warehouse example, reality TV stars are certainly doing something similar: their long days are making massive corporations tons of money that never makes it to them.
Breathless coverage of everyone from The Kardashians to Instagram influencers has given us all the impression that reality TV cast members are making huge bank. Some are! Good for them!
But like actors, there are some incredibly well-paid people, and then there’s everyone else, many of whom are scraping to get by.
Despite being on a popular show produced on Netflix—a company worth $184 billion as of this writing—Bling Empire’s Kevin Kreider says he was paid less than minimum wage. “We had to be available for almost a whole year,” he said. “I dragged my ass to like a three, six-hour interviews. So, when you put the hours together, I worked probably lower than minimum wage.”
If someone gives up their job to go on a reality TV show for a year or a month, should they also have to give up their health insurance? Shouldn’t they have the ability to negotiate a contract, or at least know they’re protected by minimum standards?
Not only do they have to contend with the lack of those things now, but also have no resources to contend with the effects of their experience: viewer reaction to an edited show, which can range from angry social media responses to death threats; damage to their bodies, as Survivor and The Biggest Loser cast members experienced; and production companies that are no longer able and/or interested in helping them them once cameras shut off.
There are horror stories on the other side of the camera, too. Nearly all the people who make reality TV are freelancers, who go from job to job, show to show, to try to pay their bills.
Bunim-Murray, the storied production company that created The Real World and an entire genre, offered a story producer on Keeping Up with the Kardashians $1,100 a week, just one example of lower wages and increased workload people in post-production are facing.
Unscripted shows have faced tighter budgets for years, with studios and streamers demanding more for less—and that affects the people who are making reality TV.
Some of this is visible on screen. We’ve watched Survivor go from a show that traveled the world, filming two 39-day seasons in two different countries, to filming in one location every year, to staying in the same place forever. Filming now lasts for just 26 days. CBS gets the same number of episodes, and can sell the same number of advertisements, and pays for fewer days of production every year.
Cast and crew are creating so much money, and seeing so very little of it.
What once was a lark—being filmed for a few months living your life while cameras film for The Real World—has become an industry.
In its announcement of its strike, the WGA said,
Here is what all writers know: the companies have broken this business. They have taken so much from the very people, the writers, who have made them wealthy. But what they cannot take from us is each other, our solidarity, our mutual commitment to save ourselves and this profession that we love. We had hoped to do this through reasonable conversation. Now we will do it through struggle. For the sake of our present and our future, we have been given no other choice.
Is it finally time for the unscripted community—at large, not just piecemeal—to come together and do that, too?
In April, the Los Angeles Times‘ Meredith Blake and Yvonne Villarreal predicted a strike would “draw more attention to ongoing labor issues” in reality TV, where “wages for unscripted series are lower, hours are longer and efforts to unionize have been met with fierce resistance.”
I was hopeful but skeptical, but that is indeed what’s been happening:
- Bethenny Frankel, of all people, said in July that reality stars should form a union because “Networks and streamers have been exploiting people for too long.”
- Lawyers representing Bravo Media, E!, and CNBC reality TV stars have accused NBCUniversal of “a pattern and practice of grotesque and depraved mistreatment of the reality stars and crew members on whose account its coffers swell,” including “intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, distribution of revenge porn, and false imprisonment”
- The Nonfiction Coalition, workers who create unscripted entertainment, are picketing in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and WGA, and pushing for “ALL of nonfiction” to be unionized,” which they say “includes docu-series, reality tv, competition stage shows, food and cooking shows, travel and adventure shows, variety and talk shows, true crime, dating shows, lifestyle shows and more!”
There has been other movement and successes, too:
- The crew of Worst Cooks in America shut down after its 50-person crew went on strike, with IATSE saying, “For far too long, crews of unscripted TV have gone without industry-standard wages and benefits! Now, they’re coming together to demand better.”
- The WGA is attempting to unionize writers on MTV’s Ridiculousness, the show that takes up most of the cable channel’s schedule now.
- Workers at Story Syndicate, which has produced Netflix’s Harry and Meghan, among other shows, successfully unionized, following in the footsteps of other production companies.
- Crew members in the UK signing an open letter demanding better working conditions has led to Bectu (a union representing creative workers in media) launching a campaign to create a “set of terms and better regulation of working practices for UK freelancers working in unscripted television.”
- SAG-AFTRA declared they “are tired of studios and production companies trying to circumvent the union in order to exploit the talent that they rely upon to make their product,” and encourage reality performers to contact the union “to engage in a new path to Union coverage.”
Exploitation is a strong word, and an accurate one. It’s finally become clear that, as the TV and entertainment industry as a whole has shifted over the past few decades, massive entertainment conglomerates have been exploiting creative professionals not just in scripted entertainment, but in unscripted and reality programming, too.
Unions are far from perfect, but they are far better than nothing. Too many people working hard to entertain us now currently receive absolutely nothing in terms of protection, and it’s time for that to change.