The great race to organize reality television has taken a few unexpected detours.Tom Short, president of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, is making a surprise move to organize writers, escalating IATSE’s turf tussle with the Writers Guild of America West.The WGA’s Hollywood unit has embarked on a campaign to represent editors and categories of producers as “storytellers” on reality shows, raising hackles at the Motion Picture Editors Guild-Local 700 (MPEG) and at the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA).Meanwhile, a guillotine dropped at the WGA, shortly after Patric Verrone handily won election on September 20 to be the new president of the West Coast scribe’s union.The board of the unit, meeting in the wake of the poll putting Verrone in the top spot, decapitated the WGA’s longtime executive director John McLean, who many guild members deemed ineffective in protecting the interests of writers in the 2004 round of negotiations with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The WGA has lost 1,000 members in recent years as well.Temporarily replacing McLean is David Young, the WGA West’s organizing director. Young has said he wouldn’t mind staying in the well-compensated post (McLean has been getting $450,000 a year) but the WGA is conducting a search before announcing a permanent replacement for McLean, who hangs around for now in an advisory capacity.Verrone beat centrist Ted Elliott, and his whole Writers United slate was swept into power on the new president’s coattails. Verrone had campaigned promising to “organize, organize, organize” writers on animation and reality shows.When it came to actual organizing, MPEG bowled yet another strike in late September. The Editors Guild announced that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, produced by Lock & Key Productions, part of Dutch entertainment conglomerate Endemol, became the latest prime-time network reality show to be represented by IATSE/MPEG.“This was a major fight and should show the rest of the industry that reality television, sooner or later, is going to be under an IATSE contract,” said Ron Kutak, executive director of the Editors Guild.According to MPEG, “a particularly vicious anti-union campaign” was waged before the group of picture editors and their assistants on Extreme Makeover voted 12-to-4 on September 27 in a National Labor Relations Board election to seek union represention.MPEG claimed the show’s producers spent much of September trying to dampen support for the union by threatening some editors with being fired, locked out, or both. MPEG organizers were Jennifer Madar and Tris Carpenter.Last month Local 700 with IATSE announced it had organized Top Model, from 10 X 10 Entertainment, which produced Who’s Your Daddy?, a previously organized reality show. In early August Local 700 announced that it had successfully organized nearly 80 editors and their assistants on three series from the stable of reality-television power Mark Burnett Productions: The Apprentice; The Apprentice: Martha Stewart; and Rock Star: INXS. Big Brother, another Endemol show, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy have also been successfully organized by Local 700.Meanwhile, even officials at some of Hollywood’s below-the-line guilds were taken by surprise when Short escalated the territorial struggle with the WGA as he hit town last month and said IATSE would seek jurisdiction over writers in the next round of negotiations between IATSE and AMPTP set to begin in early December.What types of writers Short would try to enroll in the IA and to what degree he was willing to pursue the issue was left unclear. How the WGA pursues a re-energized organizing strategy under Verrone has yet to be fleshed out as well.For now, the hit waiting to happen in Hollywood is Who’s Your Union?, an unscripted unreality show that both IATSE and the WGA are trying to limn.
Written by Jack Egan