WGAW members rally for reality show writers


WGA West leadership hopes the reality sinks in with producers of reality programming that the guild is committed to organizing writer-producers on their TV shows, and a membership rally Wednesday underscored that goal.

Top primetime scribes Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives") and Shawn Ryan ("The Shield") were among those addressing the gathering in midtown's Pan Pacific Park, which was followed by a march by the hundreds in attendance past CBS' nearby Los Angeles headquarters.

"The truth of quote-unquote reality shows is that some of them require people to write them," Cherry told a reporter. "I know the networks would like to avoid that reality because it costs them money. But to me, it's just a simple matter of fairness."

Networks "wink and turn away" when reality producers rebuff calls for union wages and benefits among show employees, Ryan told the crowd of about 800 WGA members and others.

Much of the focus of the morning event was support for 12 striking writer-producers of the CW show "America's Next Top Model," which relaunched Wednesday night with a two-hour season premiere that also served as the official launch of the network. The march to CBS represented a demand for support for "Top Model" organizing efforts -- the eye co-owns CW with Warner Bros. -- and to press management over an expired contract for CBS news employees.

CBS spokesman Chris Ender declined comment on any specific issues raised by the WGA, but he issued a statement suggesting that the next round of industry contract negotiations will be important to all parties.

"We respect guild members' right to express their views," Ender said. "We, too, see the next round of industry negotiations as important and look forward to meeting with the guild at the bargaining table."

Many industryites suggest that the WGA and other guilds are intensifying reality organizing efforts to keep networks from using such programming to fill primetime schedules in the event of a strike. The WGA's current film and TV contract expires in October 2007, and SAG and DGA pacts are up for negotiation the following year.

But management-side sources insist that any aggressive campaign to organize reality show employees will be doomed to failure, as networks have embraced such fare largely because of its low production costs.

"The producers can't afford to give in on this one," an industry insider said.

On the other hand, it might prove notable that one of the preprinted WGA placards read, "Till the death."

"Top Model" exec producer Ken Mok has said he isn't opposed to employees organizing, but he insists that the matter be handled by the National Labor Relations Board to ensure a secret-ballot election on any petition to unionize. Guild officials have characterized that position as a stall tactic, though it did file a representation petition with the NLRB on Aug. 16.

The situation is further complicated by a subsequent NLRB filing by "Top Model" producers, alleging a jurisdictional dispute between the WGA and IATSE in the matter.

"All I can say is what I have before, and that is that I hope this issue gets resolved in a timely manner," Mok said Wednesday.

Production has been completed on "Top Model" episodes through year's end. In a letter to network affiliates, CW chief operating officer John Maatta said a "contingency plan will be developed and whatever steps necessary will be taken to continue delivering episodes that maintain the show's high standards."

At the WGAW rally, television "storyteller" Susan Baronoff ("Raising the Roofs") said pay rates and working conditions on reality shows greatly lag the dramatic success of nontraditional primetime programming.

"I'm talking abut the arrogance, the contempt with which we are treated, and that's why we value the writers guild," Baronoff said.

Most of those at the rally wore red WGA West T-shirts, and many also bore preprinted signs with such slogans as "Reality shows are written -- we are united" and "Game shows are written -- we are united."

WGAW president Patric Verrone summed up the rally's message with what he called the "writers guild doctrine for the 21st century."

"Every piece of media with a moving image on a screen or a recorded human voice must have a writer," Verrone said. "And every writer must have a WGA contract."