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Reality Is Only An Illusion, Writers Say

Hollywood Scribes Want a Cut Of Not-So-Unscripted Series

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2004; Page C01

LOS ANGELES -- Pssst! Hollywood writers and their union have a little secret they want to share: Some of the reality shows that are dominating the prime-time airwaves are -- spoiler alert! -- not really real.

Meaning, the writers say, the shows are written. They have scripts, called "paper cuts" in the trade. Jokes are penned for hosts, banter for judges. Plot points and narrative arcs are developed. In some cases, lines are fed directly to contestants. (The writers do not claim that the voting is rigged.)

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Not by accident, the scribes say, the reality stories have a beginning and middle and end, shaped by writers who are called not writers but "story editors" or "segment producers," who use the expression "frankenbites" (after Dr. Frankenstein's monster) to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.

"We look at reality TV, which is billed as unscripted, and we know it is scripted," said Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the Writers Guild of America-West, which represents 9,000 scribes working in Hollywood film and television. "We understand that shows don't want to call the writers writers because they want to maintain the illusion that it is reality, that stuff just happens."

Petrie says the reality shows are not written in the traditional sense, like an episode of "Law & Order" or "Will & Grace." But he points to the Paris Hilton-Nicole Richie Fox hit "The Simple Life." "The writers craft the scenes that put the two heroines in fish-out-of-water situations," he said. "When people think of a screenplay or a teleplay, they think of dialogue. But scripts are stories, and storytelling is the most important. It's structure, situation, character."

The reality programs are, undeniably, a new kind of hybrid entertainment. The Writers Guild is not claiming that the shows are faked, but it insists that a lot more creative artifice -- a lot more typing and manipulation -- is employed on them than many viewers might guess.

To the viewing audience, the amount of writing that's done for reality TV might be a subtle point. In Hollywood, the words "scripted" and "nonscripted" are terms of art -- and commerce. One of the WGA's three central demands in current negotiations -- its contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the interests of the studios and networks, expired in June -- is that reality shows be covered by the guild contract for TV writers. The guild now wants reality shows to be considered "scripted" and therefore subject to union rules and pay scales.

Almost every reality production today is nonunion (exceptions include the talent show "Star Search" and traditional game shows like "Jeopardy!"). Guild coverage would mean credit for writers, better pay for their services, and health and pension benefits -- and a cut of any possible DVD sales and reruns. The leadership of the WGA calls the "reality jurisdiction" fight of "vital importance."

Why? Simple economics. Reality shows, which began as curiosity, a blip in the summer schedule in the late 1990s, have proved to be popular and profitable for the broadcast and cable networks. In the upcoming fall season, reality TV will account for 17 percent of the prime-time hours -- up from 6 percent in the 1999-2000 season. The writers want a bigger piece of the action.

"Since reality is not going away, something needs to be done for the writers of these shows," said Jennifer Orme, who has worked on MTV's "The Real World" and NBC's "Fear Factor," among others.

Most reality shows are relatively cheap to produce because they don't typically pay their contestants beyond a middling per diem, and they don't pay union scale for writers or directors or the crews doing camera, sound, sets and editing. On average, Writers Guild leaders say, an hour of reality TV costs about half of what an hour of drama or sitcom does. But that may be changing, as the competition among reality shows gets more intense; for example, producer Mark Burnett's two new shows -- "The Contender" and "Rock Star" -- will reportedly cost $2 million per episode.

For this article, a dozen reality writers were interviewed, and together they'd worked on 19 different reality shows over the past five years. Other staff members who are not directly writing for the shows, but have intimate knowledge of the reality trade, were also interviewed. Most insisted their names not be used because they feared their comments could cool their careers. Also, because the WGA is in negotiations, the producers of the shows and their networks balked at speaking on the record.

Said Scott Grogin, a spokesman for the Fox network, "We're not producers. We're buyers, not sellers. We don't have anything to do with that. Call the producers."

Okay, on to the producers. "The executives decline to comment," said Todd Beck, a spokesman for Bunin-Murray, the progenitors of reality shows including "The Simple Life" and "The Real World."

"They don't want to talk about it at this time," said Pam Gollum, spokeswoman for Nash Entertainment, producers of "Meet My Folks" and "For Love or Money."

One studio executive with knowledge of the contract talks between the writers and the producers -- who declined to be identified because of the ongoing negotiations -- said the reality programs are different from scripted shows. First, the executive said, the reality shows are not so much "written" as "edited." Furthermore, she said, the shows generally do not repeat, do not go into syndication, produce no DVD revenue and are typically not sold for consumption overseas.

However, episodes of reality programming have been successfully repeated by broadcast networks in the same week they were first aired. "Fear Factor" has been syndicated. And Fox recently announced plans for an all-reality channel, which will obviously air repeats. American reality shows are a big hit in Australia. And there is no shortage of reality-show DVDs, particularly for popular shows like "The Apprentice," "Survivor" and "Simple Life."

"Reality works because it is relatively cheap to make," the executive said. "Prime-time reality is a nice little business -- if it is nonunion." The problem, she said, is that "writers on reality are not really writing in the traditional sense. There is no script. What they are doing is shaping the shows, which is different."

Also, the executive said, the producers probably would be willing to make a separate agreement to pay writers more or chip in a few bucks for their health insurance. But if writers are covered by a union contract, then everybody else will want in -- hosts, directors, camera operators, set carpenters, the works. "Do the contestants become members" of the Screen Actors Guild, she asked.

The executive conceded that reality show producers definitely do not want to see a "written by" credit on their shows. "It is important that people think it's real," she said.

In the writing culture of Hollywood, the top level is movie screenwriting, the middle is TV, the bottom is reality. "It's a steppingstone," said one segment producer for a talent-contest reality show on the WB. The problem, he said, is that nobody will acknowledge how much he is writing lines for hosts and contestants, and developing their story arcs. "Is it me or is it real? That's the problem."

Some reality writers describe their jobs as rewarding, if exhausting.

"I love what I do. I'm very stimulated. Never bored. But it's grueling. A lot of hard work. It takes a lot of work from people like me to make these shows work," said Vernetta R. Jenkins, who has worked on the "Big Brother" series, "Meet My Folks" and others.

Some writers, though, describe the sets of reality shows as Hollywood's version of the sweatshop, where the crews work 12 or even 18 hours a day -- though reality shows typically operate on shorter shooting schedules of weeks as opposed to months.

"It's like guerrilla TV," said a writer who has worked three different reality shows. "You have no outside life. You leave at midnight and you have a 5 a.m. call."

She says the money isn't bad ("more money than I've ever made"), but it's not great, either, by guild standards. "Their attitude is 'Take it or leave it.' You should work for free. They're making millions off these shows. It's genius, really."

On reality shows, story editors, whose job is where writers say most of their work is done, make between $1,200 and $3,500 a week. For a writer on a half-hour prime-time network show covered by the guild, the minimum base pay is $3,376 a week, plus big perks if first drafts are used. Such a writer whose story and teleplay are used pulls in a minimum of $19,603. Plus there are the benefits: health care and pensions, which the reality shows do not offer.

"The overwhelming majority of writers on these shows are not guild members -- they're in their mid-twenties to thirties. It's a young genre and young person's genre, and the level of exploitation inflicted on them is real," said Petrie of the WGA. "They're being used."

A guild member working on a reality show -- because, she says, she's got to pay the bills, union or no -- understands that reality shows are hybrids. "We're not sitting in a room writing dialogue," she said. Instead, typically, "we write outlines, with beats. We write specific jokes. We contrive comedic situations and then we help edit them, and we go back and reshoot scenes to bring out the various stories. And sometimes we just tell the contestants you're mad, you're happy, whatever. Act that way. And if they're not getting it, we feed them a line."

The fight will likely prove and long and contentious. Rather than forbid members to work for reality shows, the Writers Guild is hoping to "salt" the programs with guild members or persuade nonunion writers to organize.

"We were caught somewhat unawares," said Paul Nawrocki, the WGA's assistant executive director. The writers union had thought, incorrectly, that reality was a fad that would quickly fade.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company