Joan Rivers recently came under heavy fire from the Writers Guild of America for events surrounding the non-union writers who are on strike from her show, Fashion Police. Rivers, a WGA member herself, has been employing the shows’ writers, many of whom are part-time, for very long hours and very low pay. She also hasn’t been willing to stand up for these writers as they’ve tried to join the union and command union wages. New York Magazine did a great job summing up the history of the strike here.
The most serious accusation Rivers faces is that she may be currently acting as showrunner for Fashion Police while the WGA is striking it — which could be grounds for expulsion from the guild. But while Rivers has admittedly been engaging in questionable practices, it’s not her fault that this sort of exploitative behavior is actually the norm for reality TV productions. Rivers is simply a powerful figure with a recognizable face, and Fashion Police is just one more show in the long history of reality shows that claim they can’t afford to pay their employees union wages.
Focusing exclusively on Rivers detracts from the real issue, which is that there are thousands of other reality TV producers who are acting in exactly the same way. They profit from the depressed wages and lack of unionized intervention at the expense of hungry and increasingly desperate employees. This is not an issue about one show, one person, one guild, or a handful of writers. Fashion Police is merely the show wherein a critical industry issue has broken through the cracks.
The criticism raised against Rivers highlights an important paradox that unscripted shows have been getting away with for decades: Reality shows posit that they can’t afford to pay union wages because their budgets are too low, and yet they keep taking over more time slots — because they’re so cheap to produce.
But of course reality TV is cheaper to produce; you don’t need union labor to produce it.
There is a pervasive mentality that because reality TV is different from scripted TV, it shouldn’t be held to the same standards. When reality TV consisted primarily of MTV’s The Real World in the early 90’s, this was not an earth-shaking problem for the industry. But twenty years later, exploitation in Los Angeles has become normal operating procedure.
What's more, exploitation is not limited to writers. I got my start in Hollywood as a production assistant in reality TV in the early 2000’s. Since then, I’ve worked in all aspects of the industry, and I’m the first to admit that these exploitative practices gave me the chance to find low-paying work no one else was willing to do. It put (cheap) food on the table.
Everyone I worked with also worked long hours, looked the other way when they were forced to work unpaid overtime, and considered themselves lucky to have a job at all. As a result, we unwittingly helped to perpetuate the cycle of low wages and ugly working conditions that are harming our current chances at finding better jobs.
It’s hard to pin down exact data on budgets, but the average half-hour sitcom costs somewhere around $1.5 million an episode. Many reality shows, on the other hand, cost less than $100,000 per hour. Reality TV has remained so cheap to produce that it has crowded out scripted television. Networks can count on these cheaper, non-union shows to fill time slots, resulting in less demand for scripted, unionized television shows. But this is exactly what organized labor is designed to prevent: The downward pressure on overall wages across an industry.
Joan Rivers did not cause this problem. She’s one of many parties involved as these exploitative practices finally begin to boil over. The major guilds and their members have been feeling this pressure and will have to bring reality TV into the fold, as the WGA tried to do during its last strike, or face further erosion of their collective bargaining power.
The furor surrounding Rivers is based on the fact that she hasn’t taken a stand for the members (and potential members) of her union. But she is just one person not helping. The real problem — perhaps eclipsed by the noise about Rivers — is that she’s not alone in permitting this race to the bottom, with lower wages being sought after by more and more desperate employees.
The writers on Fashion Police are right to demand change. The WGA is right to back them. But the problem created by reality TV’s exemption from the guild goes far beyond just Fashion Police and affects more than just television writers. Networks must come up with a good reason why reality television and its grueling hours should be exempt from the rules that protect workers everywhere else.