Is there a sweatshop behind 'Survivor'?

Writers Guild of America files suit alleging that TV execs are overworking writers and editors of 'reality' shows.

TV writer and editor Zachary Isenberg recalls vividly the shock of his second week working on the reality TV show, "Renovate My Family."

"We would work from about 9 a.m. to midnight, and often 2, 3, 4 a.m., and I'd be thinking, 'Well maybe this week is just an exception,'" says the 32-year old, who says he was denied meal breaks and told to submit false time cards. "After 2-1/2 months, I found out it wasn't."

In an Aug. 23 move that Writers Guild of America (WGA) calls "the largest organizing effort" since its founding in 1933, Isenberg and nine other reality TV writers alleged that Fox Broadcasting Co. and Rocket Science Laboratories have violated California labor laws. On behalf of 1,000 other story editors, field producers, and editor assistants at over 70 companies, the WGA-supported class action lawsuit also claims unlawful practices of perpetrating and concealing overtime.

Plaintiffs consist of employees at seven reality series all produced wholly or in part by Rocket Science Laboratories. Both Rocket Science and Fox have formally declined to comment on the suit.

Observers say the litigation will shine light into the behind-the-scenes world of television's newest genre, reality TV, whose emergence is generally dated to the debut of "Survivor" in 2000. Because the Guild has signed up so many complaints at other production companies, some say the suit could have serious repercussions on the way production companies and networks treat the creators of reality shows, and determine union protections for the future.

"The aim here is changing the workplace operations and unionizing them," says WGA legal counsel Tony Segal. "We just want to bring this new segment of the industry in line with what already exists in scripted TV productions."

Legally, the suit will show whether or not practices did occur in violation of state law, and delineate the contract rights of show creators and the companies that hire them. It will also aim to tighten the practices of dozens of operations that function out of the public spotlight. Part of the reason for that obscurity is the notion, held by some, that reality TV is unequal to conventional TV's perennial diet of drama, comedy, talk, and variety shows. But reality-TV writers point out that contrary to popular belief, there is a fair amount of premeditation involved in the creation of their shows.

"As we have begun a new genre of television with the increasing use of small production companies that are for the most part non union, the genre has developed a new meaning to the concept of sweat-shop," says WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden. At a press conference last week, plaintiffs told stories of working 12- to 21-hour shifts six and seven days a week, forgoing meal breaks, and being denied pension, health insurance, and overtime benefits.

Some observers say the legal action could curtail further development of reality shows, which are attractive to networks because they carry lower price tags compared to dramas and sitcoms. Others say a more likely outcome could be the emergence of a higher quality of show, as the genre could attract and hold better writers.

"What plays out in this will decide whether or not this segment of TV remains a kind of Wild West, non union shop genre, or whether reality TV is going to organize its own set of definitions or be absorbed into already established ones," says Robert Thompson, a media analyst at Syracuse University.

Mr. Thompson and others believe the proceedings will also show the public how reality shows manipulate the so-called "reality" they present, while adding legitimacy to the work of reality-TV writers.

"We will find out in far more detail what has hardly been a secret, that these core shows - "Survivor," "Apprentice," even "American Idol" - are not as unscripted as producers would like us to believe," says film historian Ed Robertson. "They are edited and cast in a way that is not nearly as random, unfiltered, and spontaneous as they'd like us to think."

Because of this trend, Mr. Isenberg and his colleagues feel the talent necessary to write for such shows is equal to the skill needed to write for conventional TV, and should be remunerated properly.

"It's a totally different skill and hard to compare," he says, explaining how he edited raw footage of participants in "Renovate My Family."

He also devised new story lines that fit the theme of the show and came up with new dialogue for show participants - which required more shooting - to make story lines coherent.

In an advertisements appearing in key national papers beginning this week, the WGA is taking the offensive.

"These men and women are denied pension, health insurance, and other basic protections of a WGA agreement. Why? Because they work in reality television," reads the ad. "It is disheartening to see that they have to fight to obtain the same benefits and protections our predecessors fought for and won during the 1930s and 1940s."

Both sides of the dispute agree the idea of same work and same respect will likely be a point of contention in court.

"No one would ever likely confuse reality TV with Masterpiece Theatre," says Thompson.

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