Reality TV’s Overburdened, and Underrepresented, Workforce (Guest Column)

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Story producers, most of whom are freelancers without union protections, are leaned on for many of the unheralded editing tasks on unscripted formats — an increasingly unsustainable setup.

It’s 5 a.m., and my whole body is shaking. Not because I’m cold or having a caffeine or drug withdrawal, but because I have been up for 18 hours straight, six days a week, for the past three months, working on an unscripted TV show. I am not a “veteran producer” yet, but with a decade of experience under my belt on projects for major networks and streamers, I’ve seen enough to know that behind the scenes, the postproduction world in unscripted TV has changed.

Story producers, most of whom are freelancers, are traditionally leaned on in reality formats to go through hours of footage and create a rough “string out,” a sequence of clips strung together in the order that an editor will later cut. But that job description has become a “frankenbite” — a term for editing sound bites together to create a different sentence or meaning — of what it was versus what it actually is today. And, unlike editors, story producers do not have a union to turn to for help setting guidelines for workplaces that are rapidly changing because of tech advances and remote setups during the pandemic.

Today, the expectation isn’t just for the story producers to create bins of select footage or rough string outs — it is to produce a perfectly crafted sequence (one that is missing only music and effects) to be handed to the editor in between creative meetings and writing up beat sheets, interviewing celebrities and contestants for story ideas, or tracking down the person who owns the rights to some childhood photo, because not every show is staffed to delegate those jobs. Therefore, story producers are spread thin (even with associate producers by their side) and left spending less time thinking ahead about overall stories and more time trying to cobble sound bites together quickly on an Avid editing setup. In my experience, as quickly as the field producers have to shoot, the post team has to finish editing in even half the time to get it on-air.

When the lines between editing and producing roles are so blurry, it seems reasonable to ask: Is this sustainable? At the end of the day, if a show goes off the rails and producers are regularly working beyond a 12-hour workday, they really have no say or protection — it’s either they stay on or quit. While executives scramble to ensure they don’t break union rules and try to prevent editors from going into overtime or meal penalties, their solution has become to ask story producers to stay late, knowing they will pick up the slack and help prevent the show from going over budget. (In a lot of cases, editors still go into overtime, but think of how much more overtime would be spent if producers didn’t stay late.)

The assumption that a story producer will just have to make an 18-hour day work has been a long-standing issue, but the pandemic has highlighted its flaws. Once, producers were told to go to lunch so the union reps wouldn’t see them working on their Avid systems; now, Avids can be delivered to one’s front door for six months to do string outs and edits. Who is monitoring things now? Will there ever be boundaries and rules again?

On some shows, working from home can become a nightmare for producers. There was no clear workday before, and there is certainly no clear workday now. With parents homeschooling and people too afraid to even go out to their doctors’ appointments, there is an assumption that no one is doing anything else but work (especially now, with an Avid system set up in one’s bedroom). However, working from home does not give anyone a free pass at invading employees’ personal space and time.

On most unscripted shows, producers see the imbalance in the system. But when a brave producer gets the nerve to call a meeting with their executive producer, they are often told that if they “can’t handle it,” then maybe they’re “not cut out for this business.” The problem isn’t that the producer can’t handle the job; the problem is they should be able to talk about the workload being unexpectedly thrown at them and point out the lack of balance, which prevents the show from running smoothly anyway.

I’m not certain if I’ll ever see story producers unionizing — this has been a long debate — but I’m happy to say all is not lost, especially with recent movements like the Nonfiction Producers “Union,” a coalition that’s making waves in advocacy for workers. There seems to be some hope that things are moving in a positive direction, but the only way for permanent change to happen is to speak up and initiate change. Otherwise, it just becomes another bitchfest at 1 a.m. among you and your co-workers. Without coming together, those very discussions never leave the room.

Toni-Ann Lagana is a freelance producer who has worked in the unscripted television world for 10 years.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.