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The Union Wave Hits Reality TV

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Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Peacock changed the game for unscripted (reality) TV. Over the last 5 years, unscripted TV has had a major resurgence. There has never been a survey of just how much the whole industry is worth, and reporting is sparse on how much cash some of these shows actually make networks and streaming companies. 

What we do know is that advertising costs for popular reality shows are hundreds of thousands of dollars for a 30-second ad, and they bring in a loyal cult following. The profitability of unscripted TV ripples throughout the economy, getting their millions of viewers’ eyes on big business products and services. It is reported that Survivor pays their host $8 million a year and America’s Got Talent paid one of their hosts (Simon Cowell) $95 million in 2022. Unscripted TV is cheap to produce. There is no script to write and cast members do not get paid anywhere near what their traditional actor counterparts do. Crucially, reality talent is not unionized, even if they become regulars on the series. With mainstream writers and actors on strike, unscripted TV allows production companies to continue to put out entertainment, and undermines the economic power of unionized talent (on strike at the time of writing). Unscripted TV was also used as a fallback for entertainment profits during another major writers’ strike (2007-2008). The rise in reality TV in those years is not a coincidence. 

Not all unscripted TV appearances are a one-time thing. In the new era of unscripted television – appearing on shows like The Challenge, Survivor, Below Deck, or Vanderpump Rules is a full-time career for a lucky few. With the rise of the influencer phenomenon, popular unscripted shows often lead to personal fame, to later monetize online. A layer of workers now consider taking a chance on unscripted TV an economically viable pursuit, in one way or another. With a recession and increased instability in the job market, being cast on a reality show is appealing to some, especially on an ongoing basis. 

Reality TV Talent is Hyper-exploited

It’s incredible, given what must be serious profits in unscripted television, that reality TV cast members make on average $1,700 per week in the United States. Typically, these performers quit their jobs to appear on a series, and are overworked in extreme conditions (both psychological and physical). 

Unscripted shows make up over 30% of all streaming content, but the cast do not make residuals, (which SAG-AFTRA is currently fighting for). Big-name TV and film actors would traditionally have royalties built into their contacts. Reality stars never have. In fact, the reverse is more common: for the network to take a cut of the money stars make from brand deals and product sales in return for providing a platform with the show. 

It’s especially unfair for those who appeared on shows before streaming existed, who now have no control over use of their content on streaming services today, and were never given the opportunity to renegotiate terms after streaming became the norm. If a cast member has no plans to start a business, become a musician (typical for contestants on shows like The Voice), or sell products on Instagram, they miss out. 

Reality TV Casts Should Strike With Screen Actors!

“Why isn’t reality TV on strike? I got paid $7,250 for my first season of reality TV and people are still watching those episodes,” said ex-Real Housewives star Bethenny Frankel, who recently called for a “reality reckoning” to examine the mistreatment of reality TV cast members. Bethenny Frankel herself capitalized successfully off her appearance on reality TV, but most are not so lucky. 

Most cast members of Love is Blind, for example, were paid below minimum wage, overworked, and will not see a dime in residuals while the show brings in record viewership for unscripted series on Netflix. It is not enough that these shows give the cast a platform, they should be paid residuals especially if the show makes a fortune off streaming. Love is Blind cast members were locked in hotel rooms and deprived of food and water on a regular basis. Netflix, a company valued at over $170 billion also delayed paying 2021 cast members their $1000/week stipend by over a year.

SAG-AFTRA gave public support to Frankel’s efforts to improve conditions for talent in unscripted television. The union has also confirmed they could actually cover some unscripted talent now depending on the type of production and network. 

SAG-AFTRA’s statement reads: “We stand ready to assist Bethenny Frankel, Bryan Freedman, and Mark Geragos along with reality performers and our members in the fight and are tired of studios and production companies trying to circumvent the Union in order to exploit the talent that they rely upon to make their product,”… “We encourage any reality performers and/or members to reach out to SAG-AFTRA’s Entertainment Contracts Department so that we may work together toward the protection of the reality performers ending the exploitative practices that have developed in this area and to engage in a new path to Union coverage.” 

It will take more than just a few workers reaching out to join established contracts with networks. Forming a union will be a massive battle and will require sustained organizing. Production companies will not give up such an exploitable and reliable source of profit easily. Reality TV stars with large platforms have tremendous influence and could help organize a fight back. 

Undoubtedly, unionizing reality performers would strengthen the labor movement, especially if they were organized into the already fighting Screen Actors Guild. Some reality stars are seeking to fight back through the courts. Love is Blind cast members recently began a legal battle with the show, suing for inhumane conditions while filming. But with a union, that expensive court case would instead be a contract battle, where workers can actively participate in the union structures, and can even wield the power of a strike to enforce fair treatment. Within the courts, production companies have the upper hand. Collective bargaining and united struggle are more powerful tools for workers than the courts.

Lisa Vanderpump, a wealthy reality TV star-turned producer celebrated the hyper-exploitation that keeps costs down: “One of the great things about reality shows is that they’ve always been able to be produced for less money than scripted shows,” she said. “And I don’t really understand how you can have a union for people that are normally plucked out of obscurity.” Let’s be clear: what she means by “I don’t understand” is that she does not support a union. 

Unions can take many forms, and even a portion of unscripted talent being unionized will improve conditions for anyone working on set. How famous someone is, in reality, has nothing to do with whether or not they should have a union – and in fact, as the whole of the entertainment industry shows, it’s those with the least fame who need the protection of a union the most. Ironically the cast of Vanderpump’s own show has enjoyed over a decade of celebrity, and can hardly be described as obscure at this point. They are long-standing employees of the show. It’s time for reality TV talent to join the labor movement and fight for better conditions, better pay, and lend powerful solidarity to striking actors!

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