I walk the line

Let me say at the outset that I have mixed feelings at best about so-called “reality TV.”

I was putting together a nice career as a writer of one-hour television dramas in the late 1980s when, during a brutal five-month Writers Guild strike, the networks and production companies began scrounging for ways to fill air time with writer-proof shows – that is, programming that could be slapped together without the aid of union writers and, for that matter, actors and directors wherever possible. Through the years, this programming has spread across network scheduling charts like kudzu. Besides the fact that the shows tend for the most part to be garbage, their success has taken the wind out of the guilds’ sails and made it harder for writers like me to make a living.

I’ve largely refused to even watch “unscripted” or “reality” shows, terms I have to put in quotes, because as everyone either knows or can figure out easily enough, these programs are plotted, shaped and written like anything else. Not by guild writers, but by people with titles like “segment producer,” working under adverse conditions without benefits.

"Survivor?" I interviewed its creator Mark Burnett for a laudatory piece in Variety once, but I did so without ever having watched a whole episode of the show.

"Cops," the series that Fox put on the air as a direct result of the 1988 strike and that is still running 18 years later?

Never seen it.

"American Idol," Nielsen’s top-rated primetime program for the past two years?

Maybe 10 minutes.

Still, when the WGA asked members to walk a picket line this week to help bring "America’s Next Top Model" under guild control, I wanted to help. The writers of that show work long hours without earning residuals or other benefits, while the startup CW network and the show’s production company, Anisa Productions, reap huge rewards from having a runaway hit on the schedule.

Not only that, but I see the issue of whether or not these courageous writers can unionize a tentpole hit like ANTM as a key test of my guild’s viability. Which means I consider it very important for the sake of future creators of TV content, not to mention my own pension plan.

So yesterday I made the 30-mile trek from Oak Park, where I moved two years ago when putting my kids into good public schools became more important to me than hanging out at industry events. Yeah, I also wanted to escape the 105-degree heat of the Conejo Valley for the relatively balmy Westside where, okay, I admit it, I snuck in nine holes at Penmar before heading to the picket site outside the Anisa offices.

For some reason, the WGA hasn’t pushed for a massive turnout at this week’s action, but the supporters who do show up are treated right. Guild workers hand out t-shirts and caps to picketers, and are manning a catering truck with free Starbucks concoctions and cookies .
I grabbed a picket sign – one of the vintage “Writers Guild Strikes” ones from ’88 – and showed it proudly to the passing traffic near Santa Monica and Sepulveda. There were about two dozen of us – ANTM writers and their supporters – and we marched and schmoozed for an hour and a half before the session was cut short for a planning meeting the show’s writers needed to attend at guild headquarters.
Am I happy about fighting to help “reality” writers whose rise in the industry helped cut my own employment prospects drastically?

Well, yeah, I guess I am.

Because let’s face it, America wants “reality” shows, at least the good ones. Producers and networks that figured that out deserve all the success they can get for creating and airing content that people like.

And so do writers.

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