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Natalie was scrambling for a job last spring when she received an offer to work on the latest season of E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians. A story producer with 13 years of experience, Natalie had been hired for another show that fell apart, so she was grateful to receive the offer — until production company Bunim/Murray called her with the rate: $1,100 a week.
“I audibly gasped,” says Natalie, who depended on her usual rate of at least $2,500 a week to support her family. With an average of 1.9 million total viewers in its 16th season, Kardashians remains an influential show, and Natalie (a pseudonym to protect her employment prospects) was being offered little more than what a production assistant makes in a week. “It made me angry. Because I knew that someone’s going to take that job,” she says.
(A Bunim/Murray spokesperson says, “The company prides itself on its long-standing employee relationships and the fact that many have been with the company for years. Without knowing the details, it’s impossible to address this specific situation.”)
As reality TV has hit on hard times amid declining ratings and consolidation, the salaries of story producers — those who craft a show’s narrative — are stagnating or declining. Offers and pay stubs examined by THR show story producers receiving $1,280 a week for a Facebook Watch show, $1,800 for a Discovery Channel job requiring seven straight days of work and $1,100 for an E! show (the names of the production companies that set these salaries are being withheld to protect identities). Though story producers are not unionized, the Motion Picture Editors Guild has on occasion included them in some contracts and set their minimum 40-hour rate at $1,858 a week. Numerous professionals say that a story producer with a few years’ experience typically made $2,000 to $2,500 just a few years ago.
Reality TV has long been prized by networks and streamers because it’s generally cheaper to produce than scripted entertainment — but the focus on lean budgets has hit story producers hard. Even while their salaries decline, story producers (titles also can be story editor, segment producer or writer, among others), continue to put in punishing hours, dozens told The Hollywood Reporter. As employees who typically review most of the show’s vast amounts of footage, they are, in the words of one supervising producer, “in [the office] first and out last.” Their responsibilities vary, but they can produce in the field, write scripts and spend long hours in an editing bay. And while companies don’t tend to explicitly ask employees to work longer than a five-day week, story producers — salaried and not entitled to overtime — say tight deadlines set by networks mean they need to put in nights and weekends to hand in their work on time on every show.
“The sheer volume of footage that has to be watched and culled through to even find the story is daunting,” says unscripted TV editor and editors guild board member Mary DeChambres.
“Good story producers are one of the most undervalued positions in reality,” one source who has worked several jobs in the genre says. “And it’s a shame because they’re making the show.”
In 2019, advertisers aren’t flocking to network reality heavyweights like The Bachelor and Survivor as they once did. Amid a boom in scripted TV and the fragmentation of audiences, ratings are falling for the genre. In the 2007-08 season, reality TV had six shows in the top 10 in total viewers, but since 2016-17, it’s had none. Basic and cable networks are cutting costs and imposing strict new rules as a result: This year, Discovery Channel implemented a payment structure requiring independent production companies to front money for their own shows, leading production companies to complain about squeezed profit margins.
In a 2017 survey by PactUS (now known as NPACT), a trade group of independent unscripted producers, 57 percent of respondents reported that network program budgets had declined in the previous year, while 66 percent said producer profits and margins also had dipped. NPACT interim GM Michelle Van Kempen says the situation has gotten worse, citing deals that block production companies from receiving much, if any, backend. “Those things affect the ability to increase any line item on the budget, including salaries,” she says.
While streamers and digital platforms have boosted unscripted production somewhat, lower-budget shows predominate on these platforms: Anecdotally, many reality TV employees say “digital” shows often offer the lowest budgets, with a few exceptions. “The streamers are tightening their belts from where they started,” says Van Kempen.
Meanwhile, adds longtime story producer Troy Devolld, “The staffs have gotten smaller: They’re trying to figure out ways to save money without being egregious.” Hiring support staff — like assistant story producers and associate producers — to help with postproduction is less common than it used to be, according to several sources who spoke for this story. With fewer story employees overall on an average show, story producers say they’re working harder for less: The majority reported working 12-hour days or more, plus weekends, on gigs. “I can remember sobbing on my way to work going to [the production company] Ugly Brother being so tired because I had worked 24 hours at that point and there was just not enough Adderall to stay awake,” says a story producer who worked there in 2016.
With fewer colleagues on hand, several story producers say they are taking on other positions’ tasks. One assistant story producer working for a production company on a recent A&E show and making $660 a week was asked to help restructure the two final episodes after other members of the story team were dismissed; she was given no additional pay or credit.
“They usually don’t announce that you’ll have more than one job,” says a story producer with seven years’ experience. “You’ll just show up and say, ‘Holy shit, this needs to get done, and I’m the only one here.’ “
Meanwhile, benefits like a 401(k), health care and paid vacation and holidays are available only at the most established companies, including Bunim/Murray (The Real World) and 44 Blue (Wahlburgers), and after several months of employment. Given that the majority of story producers work at a company only for the duration of a show, most do not receive these benefits.
Why story produce at all, given these conditions? The role can be a stepping stone to higher-up positions in unscripted TV. Others argue reality provides a more accessible path to writing for TV than scripted shows. But with that comes job insecurity: There will always be someone else willing to take a lower rate or work harder, and complaining could get an employee fired. During postproduction on the 2017 Fox special Who Shot Biggie & Tupac?, several staffers confronted an executive producer about being required to work two consecutive weekends at the start of their gig. “If none of you wants to do it, you can walk out the door right now,” one source recalls the EP responding. Afraid of being labeled “troublemakers,” the employees backed down.
“It ends up being a group of people that find it very hard to stand up for themselves. Maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, where the lack of value that the format is given extends to the lack of value given to the workers inside the industry,” says former story and executive producer Susan Baronoff. “It’s a group that loves doing what they’re doing, by and large, and feels it has no power and that they’re expendable and that quality isn’t really a value.”
A spokesperson for Critical Content, the production company behind Biggie & Tupac?, said in a statement, “We agree: people should be fairly compensated for their work and conditions should be not just humane but enjoyable. That’s why we pay above-market rates plus provide ways for staffers to anonymously contact our most senior managers with any concerns. In this case, we received no complaints. This show, like so many, came with a tight deadline and a firm airdate. That’s a reality of production, and we’re grateful to the stellar team that worked incredibly hard to get this show done and make it great.”
Story producers have sought better work conditions, with little success. Lawsuits can briefly scare the industry into changing practices, as did dual 2005 class-action suits by story producers and others against Next Entertainment (The Bachelor) and Rocket Science Laboratories (Joe Millionaire) for unpaid overtime, missed meal penalties and falsified time cards (the suits were settled for a combined $4.11 million in 2009). “We all survived it,” says Devolld, a plaintiff against Next Entertainment, “though certainly at some cost. I think it finally blew over because ultimately our peers mostly agreed that you can’t blame people for trying to right something that’s incorrect.” However, labor experts say that companies have many tools to avoid lawsuits: They can go bankrupt, merge or form limited liability corporations.
Catherine Fisk, a UC Berkeley law professor and the author of Writing for Hire: Unions, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue, argues the best way to solve story producers’ labor troubles is unionization. “What’s made [scripted] writing a reasonably well-paying, stable job, at least for people who succeed in Hollywood, is the multi-employer negotiation,” she says.
The WGA West has long sought to unionize story producers, whom the guild considers to be the writers of reality TV, but has never succeeded. (Since 2012, the WGA East, meanwhile, has contracts or is negotiating with Viceland, Peacock, Lion, Sharp, Optomen, Vox, Kirkstall and Leftfield to cover story producers.) After a years-long attempt to organize story producers in Los Angeles, the WGA West dropped its bid in negotiations during the 2007-08 writers strike, a move that left some feeling cold. “I wouldn’t have been shocked if we were used as leverage,” says former story producer J. Ryan Stradal, now a novelist. The WGA West did not respond to requests for comment.
In the past few years, meanwhile, the editors guild has quietly attempted to organize story producers whose responsibilities overlap with their members’. (The guild has been able to do this on shows including USA’s NFL Football Fanatic in 2018.) Though story producers frequently use editing equipment like Avids on union shows, some of those shows hide that when a guild field representative pays a visit, multiple sources say. The editors guild does not comment on current organizing efforts.
However, corporations can also disrupt the unionization process by simply restructuring: Umbrella companies may shut down shows or subsidiaries that have unionized. According to WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson, who says his organization encountered “significant resistance” from employers while organizing unscripted production companies in New York, companies facing unionization tended to run intense anti-union campaigns, “tie[d] us up in litigation and took very hard-line stances at the bargaining table.”
While the majority of story producers who spoke with THR support unionization, others are afraid it could reduce the number of jobs available. Some note that companies aren’t required to use union crews, so unionization might not matter. Others point out that production companies have fired staff that tried to unionize: After a dozen America’s Next Top Model writers struck with WGA West support in 2006, they were let go.
“For this to really make a big splash, [unionization] needs to be on a show that is one of the grandfather-type reality shows,” unscripted editor and editors guild board member Molly Shock says. “It has to be a show where a network will go, ‘We’re not going to sink this entire franchise over what amounts to several tens of thousands of dollars.’ “
As their quality of life worsens, some story editors are choosing to leave reality TV altogether. A few have attempted to jump to scripted television, where writer salaries are higher but unscripted work is less valued and understood. One Emmy-winning former reality editor who moved from unscripted to scripted work and spoke for this story notes that she took an assistant job before she could become a scripted editor. Others leave TV altogether: “What I found is that it’s almost like half the people become realtors and the other half become therapists,” says former story producer and Preachers’ Daughters showrunner Emily Sinclair, now a real estate agent herself.
Otherwise, story producers are taking low rates, even if they feel that, over time and in aggregate, acquiescence will pull down salaries for everyone. “You don’t know what to do because you’ve got to eat, pay your bills, buy health insurance because there’s no union, and living in Los Angeles is not cheap,” a story producer who has been in the industry 15 years says. “Somebody’s making the money. It’s not us.”
A version of this story first appears in the Sept. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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