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“It’s Been Brutal”: Reality TV Producers Lament Conditions as Networks Remain Frugal During Strikes

As networks are largely without new scripted episodes heading into the fall amid Hollywood’s dual strikes, the state of unscripted programming is suddenly in a brighter spotlight than ever before. But this moment of scrutiny comes as those who work in the genre continue to deal with an uncommonly depressed job market, not to mention challenging expectations for the coveted openings.

“I have been a professional editor for over 30 years, and I don’t know when I’m going to get my next gig,” Molly Shock, an elected board member of the Editors Guild who will soon wrap up her work for the upcoming season of Fox’s MasterChef, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I have never seen it this dry for unscripted. I know many people who have not worked in three to four months. I know people who haven’t worked since December.”

The recent dearth of opportunities may come as a surprise to anyone assuming this to be a time of increased demand. After all, both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild are involved in ongoing labor disputes with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and broadcast networks are leaning heavily on unscripted for their recently retooled fall schedules. This includes CBS’ plan to run expanded, 90-minute episodes of Survivor and The Amazing Race, along with extending summer series Big Brother and The Challenge: USA into fall and adding four other new unscripted titles to the slate. ABC and Fox are similarly relying on reality TV this fall, as the five broadcast networks are set to air 38 hours of reality and game show programming at the start of the season, up 81 percent from last year.

But for the individuals working in the unscripted industry who spoke to THR, the current moment feels much different from the situation ahead of the previous writers strike that ran from November 2007 to February 2008. Back then, unscripted jobs were plentiful, and reality TV — cheaper and faster to produce than scripted programming — saw its value rise, as shows like Big Brother (which aired its only winter edition that year) and The Celebrity Apprentice (having debuted in January 2008) helped bolster slates. This time around, the space appears to have been hit with a general belt-tightening following a rosier stretch coming out of the pandemic, not to mention that the genre has been light on breakout hits in recent years. Plus, insiders also point fingers at Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav for having drastically cut spending at the company, which is behind numerous reality programs.

“The jobs were few and far between the last few months, and you’d see a thousand people applying for a job, whereas normally you’d see maybe a hundred or less,” says Eric Hirsch, who has worked as a story producer on the Real Housewives franchise and other Bravo series. “There was this gold rush the last couple years in the reality TV world, especially coming out of COVID. Now they’re pulling back, and they were hesitant [to spend ahead of the strikes]. So, this winter was extremely dead for reality TV. No one was working.”

Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong, Jamie Foxx and Nicole Scherzinger on The Masked Singer

Greg Gayne/Fox

During the previous strike, the WGA initially sought to cover unscripted producers under its contract, but this was scuttled as negotiations progressed. (The WGA East has unionized some nonfiction workers, including writers and producers at 90 Day Fiancé company Sharp Entertainment, in addition to Lion TV, responsible for Cash Cab.) Producers say that there still appears to be interest from WGA East to make a bigger push, although the prospects remain hazy. “I’ve had some conversations with people that have called me from there to try to get me excited and involved again,” says Troy DeVolld, a producer with credits including Dancing With the Stars and author of the book Reality TV. “I’m just a little bit wary.”

Those who work on the shows aren’t alone in expressing confusion as to why an unscripted producer’s contributions would not be classified as some form of writing. “I am fascinated that there’s no one on these reality shows who gets credit as a writer because clearly these stories are shaped,” says Richard Gerrig, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University and author of the book The Psychology of Survivor. “The fact that that’s not called writing is just fascinating in the context of how Hollywood works.”

One question mark heading into the fall is whether competition shows that have typically included actors as hosts, judges and contestants, such as Fox’s The Masked Singer and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, will be impacted. Reality stars can be part of SAG-AFTRA under the National Code of Fair Practice for Network Television Broadcasting, which is distinct from the film and TV collective bargaining agreement that had been the focus of negotiations between the union and the AMPTP. As of now, Masked Singer and DWTS appear to be moving forward with fall editions as planned; Vanderpump Rules standout Ariana Madix is the only contestant to have been announced for the latter’s forthcoming 32nd season.

Some individuals who work in unscripted hope that the optics of appearing on a show for a struck company will make SAG-AFTRA members reluctant to participate while the labor dispute persists. Indeed, a Netflix editor with over a decade of experience who requested anonymity tells THR, “One unscripted show that was supposed to be filled with celebrity cameos has already been pushed four months.” Of course, this also doesn’t help with the general lack of work.

Momentum appears to be building to encourage reality talent to support the work stoppages. Last week, Real Housewives of New York City alum Bethenny Frankel took to Instagram to push for unscripted stars to strike and emphasized that she has never received residuals from her work. One West Coast-based freelance docusoap producer requesting anonymity — whose credits include Real Housewives and other Bravo titles — appreciates her campaign but would love to see talent offering support for behind-the-scenes teams as well: “Reality TV producers have long had the will to unionize but tragically never the way. Maybe Frankel could add that to her mission of collective, positive disruption.”

While some unscripted shows are covered by a union contract — including MasterChef, NBC’s America’s Got Talent and Bravo’s Married to Medicine — most are not. One individual requesting anonymity who has worked as an executive producer and showrunner on numerous docuseries says that most fellow producers would prefer to join a union, but with slumps like the current one, the highest priority becomes simply landing a paycheck.

“We get starved out all the time, and then people just have to work,” she says. “And then you lose your negotiating power and have to take a job and commit to a schedule and a budget that is unrealistic. They want the shows to be better and more complicated and perhaps deal with a cast that’s even more challenging, but they want it in less time and with less of a budget. That means the work hours get longer and longer and longer. And if you’re not willing to agree to that type of rigorous schedule, somebody else will take your job. So it’s been brutal.”

DeVolld points out that the unscripted space can feel set up to take advantage of less experienced creatives seeking Hollywood opportunities. “The reason there’s so many younger people flooding into reality television is because, when you’re 25 years old, you don’t realize you’re ever gonna want to retire,” he says. “You don’t realize that pension and insurance are important. I was working 80 to 100 hours a week for 23 straight years.”

Shock has been part of walkouts for both Survivor and History’s Swamp People, which led to those shows unionizing, and she acknowledges that the process can be a scary one for job security, not to mention that the success of such action can be contingent on the series being seen as indispensable to its platform. But she emphasizes the importance of individuals taking initiative in informing the union if their show appears to have a tenable environment for a union contract — not just to benefit this generation but also future ones.

“We’re going to look back on this time and say, ‘This was a real opportunity for unscripted to claim the worth and respect it deserves,’” Shock says. “Sure, there is a real fear that shows may be shipped overseas to be worked on remotely by editors in foreign countries, and who knows what this industry is going to look like in five years? But it’s much better to engage in conversation now than just sit and wait and say, ‘Let’s just ride this downturn out, and see how it goes.’”

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