Monday, July 11, 2005

Hidden information labor behind "reality TV"

The supposed draw of "reality TV" for viewers is that such entertainment presents an unscripted, unfiltered view of human behavior and human drama; the supposed draw of "reality TV" for networks is that such entertainment removes the need to hire peksy and expensive creative talent such as writers and actors. Both assumptions are wrong, as a recent New York Times article on labor disputes behind reality TV illustrates. For example, on the reality TV show "The Bachelor," the producer recently found that in a cost-cutting measure "the production had eliminated the low-level clerks, called loggers, who catalogue the contents of hundreds of hours of video taken of the contestants." These high-level workers acknowledged to be necessary to reality TV, like the producers, not only end up covering more diverse information labor tasks, but work under harsher wage conditions:

Salaries for producers and editors on reality shows vary widely, and often depend on the production company, though network shows tend to pay more than cable. One show may offer $2,500 a week for a field producer, while another may offer $1,600 a week. By comparison, the minimum guild rate for a writer on a prime-time, 13-week scripted show is $3,477 per week.

Part of the problem is related to the different temporal rhythm of reality TV. Unlike scripted drama or comedy, some reality shows take "only weeks, rather than months, to be bought, produced and appear on the air." Production companies which offer the quickest turnaround and the lowest bid win the contract -- often by cutting out traditional steps in the labor process. One producer called it "the Wal-Mart model".

Such labor cuts are helping to create a backlash of pro-union sentiment. "nearly 1,000 writers, editors and producers [...] have signed with the Writers Guild of America, West, to try to force reality production companies and the networks that present the shows to negotiate a union contract." Similarly, "the Directors Guild of America has struck agreement with about 35 reality shows".

The head of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers dismisses such efforts: "A lot of people in this country would love to have the work these people are doing, and the rates of pay that they receive, millions of people," he said. "Sports people work long hours. News people work long hours. It's a business that basically adjusts to the needs of production, and hopefully people get time off later." But the NYT report says "that's exactly what editors and producers in the reality genre say that they do not get. On scripted shows, they said, writers work abnormally long hours during the year, but have long hiatuses between seasons. And their compensation is commonly twice what reality show producers - the people who devise the story lines, but who are rarely called 'writers' in the credits - earn."

The NYT article points out that underlying all of these questions is a key definition wrapped up in the idea of creative information laobr: "Is the work done by producers and editors on reality shows really the same as writing?" For example, I'm studying the work of broadcast closed captioners which bears striking similarities to the plight of reality TV workers: their work is under severe time pressure, they are often targeted for elimination by cost-cutting production companies, and they are not considered "authors" even though they must creatively interpret information in one modality (audio) and turn it into information in a totally different modality (text) while taking into consideration audience needs such as reading speed, education level, and cultural background.

Whether it's reality TV, a closed-captioned movie-of-the-week, or your local network news, the analytical points of relation -- and potential opportunities for collective political action -- seem to hinge on the ability of information workers hired on different broadcast products to be able to recognize the labor processes, employment conditions, and social roles they share as skilled and creative mediators of media messages. Only then can they make claims of legitimacy, solidarity, and value back to both their employers (producers) and their customers (audiences).

Update: An article today in the New York Times reports that "A lawsuit filed last week against producers and broadcasters of reality television shows accused those companies - including ABC, CBS and the WB - of planning to falsify payroll records of employees to avoid paying wages for overtime. The lawsuit, filed on July 7 in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks class-action status and is part of a broader effort by the Writers Guild of America, West, to organize nearly 1,000 workers who edit and produce the reality programs. The union says the workers toil lengthy schedules for dismal wages with no health or pension benefits, unlike counterparts on scripted television shows."

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