After the American actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on strike in mid-July, writers and actors—the foundations of scripted television—stopped their work. As such, many expected reality TV to take center stage. However, as the unscripted sector navigates the same unpredictable currents as the broader TV and film industry, it is necessary to assess the current state of reality television amidst the ongoing transformation of Hollywood.
July 14 marked the first time in over six decades that American actors and writers called for a work stoppage simultaneously. The unions stood on similar platforms, fighting mainly for their members to receive longer contract minimums, higher pay and residuals in an entertainment landscape increasingly defined by streaming and protection of their name and likeness with the advent of artificial intelligence.
The stakes of these strikes are high, not just for striking union members facing job and income loss, but for the economy as a whole—California loses an estimated $30 million a day while writers strike. So while the WGA officially ended its industrial action on Sept. 27, 148 days went by with Hollywood at a complete standstill, and there is still more waiting to go as actors remain on strike.
Though they construct the storylines and create the narratives that serve as their respective shows’ beating heart, reality television producers are not considered writers and, as such, are not protected by the writers’ union. In the same vein, reality television stars, despite giving entertaining performances, portray themselves and are not considered actors protected by the actor’s guild. This has made it difficult for those involved in the making of reality TV to be protected from exploitation.
For example, as Mariah Espada of Time Magazine writes, “reality TV stars do not receive residuals and they give away their likeness in perpetuity when series become hits and get replayed across platforms.”
With “no scripts, no writers, no professional actors and no unions,” reality television is significantly cheaper to produce than scripted programs. These lower costs and the ability to work through strikes, is likely why, in the event of industrial action, unscripted TV has historically been a crutch for big networks.
Meredith Blake and Yvonne Villarreal of the LA Times highlight that the 1988 WGA strike helped make shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted household names, and the most recent writer’s strike in 2008 popularized the likes of Big Brother and Celebrity Apprentice. Over 100 unscripted shows returned or premiered during the 2008 strike, leading many to credit the boom in reality TV in the late-aughts with the writer’s strike. This is because broadcasters delegate slots normally designated for scripted television to reality shows—a trend we are seeing now as Ryan Gajewski reports networks filling their primetime schedules with “38 hours of unscripted programming across the five broadcast networks, which is an 81 percent uptick from last year.”
If the 2008 strike “prompted a reality TV boon as existing and new unscripted programs filled in the gaps popular sitcoms and dramas left behind,” and if the likes of CBS, ABC and Fox are currently leaning on unscripted programming, why aren’t reality television workers celebrating this seemingly big win for the genre? The answer is three-fold.
Firstly, the context for a strike looks differently now than it did in 2008. Streaming allows people to rewatch and catch-up on shows, which means the impact of the strikes on programming gaps won’t be as pronounced this time around. Natalie Jarvey explains that because “every major entertainment conglomerate has amassed a library full of classic TV shows and movies, which can be easily pushed to bored streaming viewers,” there is less incentive to spend money producing even more reality television—even if it is cheap.
Additionally, broadcast viewership has been on the decline even before the strike as a result of streaming. This has led to reduced budgets and networks investing in shows that produce at a lower cost. Consequently, broadcast networks were already filled with numerous reality shows, and streaming has also begun cashing in on the low-cost, high-profit shows. This is all to say, we likely won’t see another boom in reality TV because of streaming and the already-high volume of shows in the space.
Secondly, reality television workers are busy fighting for their own working conditions. Reality TV industry veterans report being exposed to dangerous working conditions, workplace mistreatment by employers, unhealthy work-life balance, and poor pay. Additionally, a 2020 survey found that “over 80 percent of professionals working in nonfiction and documentary television do not have health insurance and have worked significant amounts of unpaid overtime in the past five years.”
These poor conditions are not limited to producers and employees of the network; the reality TV personalities themselves are suffering. Love Is Blind contestant, Jeremy Hartwell, sued Netflix just last year, alleging inhumane working conditions that included 20-hour work days, inadequate food and sleep, and excess alcohol. Bethenny Frankel claims to have been paid only $7,250 for her first season on the Real Housewives of New York and that she hasn’t received a cent in residuals. Frankel has been outspoken in her calls for justice in the reality TV space, encouraging fellow reality performers to consider unionizing. An Aug. 3 litigation hold letter by her lawyers “alleges that their clients have been ‘mentally, physically and financially victimized’” by working on reality television series, claiming that “cast members are fueled with alcohol, deprived of food and sleep and denied mental health treat, and that acts of sexual violence have been covered up.”
Clearly, reality television workers have their own bones to pick with the industry, and rightfully so. This leads us to the last reason reality TV is not celebrating the strikes as a win for the genre: most workers stand in solidarity with their scripted counterparts. As their working conditions come increasingly under fire and calls for unionization pick up more traction, it is only natural for unscripted employees to support this year’s strikes.
A producer told Rolling Stone that “they support the strike and wish they were a part of a union that could support them and their colleagues in the same way SAG and WGA leadership supports their members.” Another reality producer spoke with the LA Times, stating that she was “hopeful for the prospect of a union for unscripted writers.” So although the reality television sector has yet to unionize, there are certainly signs that organization of this kind is on the horizon for the unscripted world.
Workers everywhere, whether in-front of or behind the camera and no matter where they work, deserve fair pay and fair treatment. So while we likely won’t see a boom in reality television in the coming months, the genre will certainly be a hot topic as industry talks of working conditions, strikes, and unionization continue.