By Carl Marziali
You want reality? How about this: most reality television crews are not eligible for union benefits because their shows are still not organized.
Four years after Survivor broke open the genre, only a handful of reality TV shows are under contract with IATSE. This is a touchy subject not just with producers but, surprisingly, with the union. A representative at IATSE International, Lindajo Loftus, would not say how many shows have been organized. She also declined to identify nonunion shows.
The IATSE web site mentions the successful organization of five shows out of the many—at least two dozen—in the reality universe. The five are Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Blind Date, The Fifth Wheel, Performing As… and Big Brother.
An IATSE official who did not want to be named said that Average Joe is also organized, while the following shows, among others, are nonunion: The Apprentice, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Elimidate, Extreme Makeover, Fear Factor, For Love or Money, Joe Millionaire, Newlyweds, The Swan and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?
The official speculated that the low rate of organization may be a source of embarrassment for IATSE International. Tommy Cole, business representative for Local 706 (makeup/hairstyling), believes the situation is improving.
“A year ago, none of these shows were union,” he says. “The IATSE is signing up a lot of the reality shows.”
For crews, the issue is not necessarily money. Union members routinely work for nonunion shows, IATSE officials concede. And the pay on some reality shows is comparable to union scale. The problem, says Cole, is that members on nonunion shows sometimes go without their health and pension coverage. At the same time, the hours they log on the shows do not count towards their IATSE totals, which determine benefit eligibility.
“People are going without their benefits and they’re losing their benefits,” he says.
There are other issues, says Craig Conover, assistant business agent for Local 80 (grips): some producers use large numbers of PAs to do work traditionally performed by the crafts. Production manager James Margellos says the line between grip and electrical is blurred on some shows, resulting in less work for both. Crews in general tend to be smaller on reality shows, he says.
Producers of nonunion reality shows were not eager to comment for this article. “I have no information that I can provide for you,” said Amy Maloney, publicist for Telepictures’ The Bachelor/Bachelorette and Elimidate.
“Bruce Nash is unavailable for comment,” said Pam Golum, publicist for Nash Entertainment, which created For Love or Money. Fear Factor creators Endemol Entertainment did not return calls for comment.
Cole acknowledges that organizing reality TV has not been easy. “The IA hit some resistance, of course. There are some producers who don’t want to organize because it costs them money,” he says.
The union has also met resistance from its own members on reality shows. IATSE International acknowledges that members do not always call the office to request their show be organized. Some may be afraid of losing their jobs, says one official, or may not care enough because they have other employment and are working reality TV for “gravy money.”
But if money is the gravy, health and pension are the stuffing—and it’s a safe bet that come Thanksgiving, many of these shows will still be hollow inside.
By Carl Marziali