The End of Reality TV

Unions call for new regulations that could change the face of unscripted programming… we can only hope and pray

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When CBS’s “Survivor” first debuted in May 2000, the landscape of American primetime television, with its cadre of wacky sitcoms and gritty cop dramas, would soon change forever. It didn’t take long before network execs realized that they didn’t have to pay high-priced actors and writers to draw in huge audiences, and before viewers knew what hit them, shows like ABC’s “The Bachelor,” NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and Fox’s perennial powerhouse “American Idol” began sprouting up like mushrooms. Each of these shows features everyday people vying for prizes in an elimination-based contest — a premise whose continued popularity suggests that the age of reality competitions is here to stay.

In the last few years, however, the entertainment industry has become increasingly divided over a murky semantic argument between producers, who benefit from reality TV’s current low-budget model, and talent unions, whose members are suffering in a climate where fewer traditional dramas and comedies ever see the light of day. The nature of the argument boils down to a single question: Are participants on reality shows contestants or actors?

The answer could radically alter the economics of reality shows and threaten their future viability. If the participants are actors, then they are subject to jurisdiction under the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. As union performers, they would be entitled to catered food, regulated breaks and scale pay. It’s little wonder why producers support the current system, which treats reality participants as contestants.

But critics say the existing regulations have fostered a culture of harsh and dangerous working conditions, an issue that was first made public on the set of CBS’s “Kid Nation” in early 2008. The now-defunct show, which followed the lives of children as they attempted to create their own society without adult supervision, ignited an outcry over alleged child abuse when a contestant’s mother claimed that her daughter’s face was burned by grease during production. Other parents complained that the children were forced to work long, grueling hours without breaks.

Some union officials say such conditions are pervasive in reality television. Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director for the Writers Guild of America, told The Los Angeles Times that networks have a tendency to “try to divorce themselves from legal responsibility or moral responsibility for the conditions on the shows.” However, CBS maintained that it did not break child labor laws on “Kid Nation” because the kids were contestants on the show and therefore not technically “working.”

Because the “Kid Nation” controversy involved minors, it added weight to the argument that reality-show contestants are entitled to the rights enjoyed by performers on traditional TV shows. While unions like the WGA and SAG have been working to change existing laws, some believe they are fighting a losing battle. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. “These shows are very careful to not do any writing, and not hire any writers, which keeps them from producing a scripted show. That’s one thing right there that eliminates the possibility of performance.”

Galinsky, whose school teaches audition techniques to aspiring reality stars, believes different rules should apply to different reality genres. “There are some shows like ‘The Real World’ where there is no competition. I don’t think they should be considered contestants,” he said. “But I think in these other shows, where there are challenges — they’re not acting. They’re contestants on a show.”

The debate over reality-show participants has escalated even further in the United Kingdom, where the British performers’ union Equity is laying the legal groundwork for future regulations that could influence the entertainment industry here in the U.S. Last week, Equity announced that it plans to propose a motion at next month’s Trades Union Congress Conference that would close a legal loophole that treats reality shows as competitions.

Equity spokespeople say shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor” make huge profits by preying on contestants’ eagerness to break into show business. “These programs may be very popular with the public but are based on exploitation and humiliation of vulnerable people, which cannot be acceptable,” the union said in a statement.

If Equity is successful in changing the law, British production companies like Talkback Thames, which produces “Britain’s Got Talent,” would have to pay contestants Equity rates, as well as acknowledge their basic employment rights.

The temptation to try out for a reality show can be strong, even for aspiring actors who hope to have legitimate careers. Galinsky estimates that about 50 percent of his students at the Reality TV School are trained performers looking to explore what the genre has to offer. But even Galinsky admitted that actors should consider whether 15 minutes of fame is worth a permanent stigma. “If you get on a reality show and you want to be a serious actor, you are putting your acting career at risk,” he said. “It’s not that it’s going to kill your career, but people will view you a certain way. It may cheapen their view of how much you respect the craft of acting.”

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Originally published in Show Business Weekly, 2009

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