Runaway production has gradually leached film and TV production away from the L.A. area, with locations in the US and abroad offering cheaper production costs and more lucrative incentives. Film L.A.’s 2012-2013 productionreport suggests that reality TV remains the largest contributor to L.A.’s on-site production totals.
The rising prominence of reality TV has come in two significant waves, the first spurred by a 1988 writers’ strike and the second by conglomeration. The 1988 Writer’s Strike occurred in the context of regulatory changes, increasing competition from cable stations, and network financial troubles. Lasting 22 weeks, the strike devastated the big networks and forced them to look into new alternative, non-scripted programming strategies. Networks subsequently developed shows like COPS,Unsolved Mysteries, and America’s Most Wanted, paving the way for today’s reality TV landscape.
The second wave of reality television occurred after industry conglomeration in the late 1990s. In this period, the global TV format business exploded, with vertically integrated western European corporations generating large inventories of game show and reality TV formats to sell internationally. Endemol, the largest of these format farms, created some of the most popular reality TV programs, including Big Brother, Fear Factor, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Following the success of shows like Survivor on CBS (2001—), major American television networks quickly embraced the genre, as well.
The pressure to turn profits, keep production costs down, please shareholders, and maintain high ratings under a conglomerated TV industry has made the reality TV format very attractive to networks and studios. Although most people realize the “stars” of reality TV work without payment, few know about the dubious conditions for workers behind the scenes, including long hours, low pay, and limited benefits.
Without union representation, reality TV programs do not have to pay guild-negotiated basic minimums, meaning production crews work for less than their unionized counterparts. Studios do not have to provide health benefits, pension plans, or compensate for sick days. Creative and craft labor often have to work well over 40 hours per week without overtime compensation. Moreover, in cases where crews are shooting in remote, dangerous locations, adequate medical help is usually unavailable should accidents occur. Accordingly, reality TV crews find themselves working in conditions that are colloquially compared to “sweatshop” labor.
Although the WGA, DGA, SAG-AFTRA, and IATSE have organized hundreds of reality TV programs, the “reality” of the situation is that some guilds, like the DGA, have had more success in this area than others. In fact, the hard truth is that a number of reality TV shows, particularly those with mobile shooting schedules, still lack formal guild representation for below-the-line labor. Thus, in the event of another strike, reality television remains a viable option for networks that need to compensate for the lack of scripted fare in their schedules, since most reality TV workers would not be in a position to respect the picket lines.