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Jim Milio
Does Reality Still Bite?
This article by the writers of The Dog Whisperer was not scripted.

Back in January 2004, journalist/humorist Joel Stein was certain he’d discovered the Pentagon Papers of the Reality TV world. “Through sources I cannot reveal but would definitely not go to jail to protect,” wrote Stein in a Los Angeles Times Opinion column, “I got hold of a 19-page, single-spaced outline of an upcoming episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Every moment is planned in advance, including a few specific lines for the straight guy to deliver.” Stein goes on to share evidence that series—from The Restaurant to The Simple Life to The Osbournes—were scripted, re-enacted, and “secretly crafted by writers.”

Writers? On Reality shows? But the AMPTP forcefully asserted in the last WGA contract negotiations that Reality shows couldn’t possibly be written. They are conceived by omnipotent producers and then emerge fully formed from the mouths of bachelors and bachelorettes, survivors and amazing racers, fashion designers and top models, has-been C-listers, Orange County teens, and Donald Trump.

If the Reality show writer is a mythical beast, the two of us must be Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, respectively. We toiled in the trenches of what used to be known as nonfiction and documentary writing for many years of our careers. We wrote hardcore documentaries, variety shows, clip shows, and hit series like Rescue 911, all covered by WGA contracts. At the risk of having to initiate age discrimination lawsuits, we both remember the era when the WGA-covered Real People and That’s Incredible! were primetime juggernauts. Then one day in the late ’90s, nonfiction television suddenly became “unscripted” television. Overnight, what we were writing was now called Reality, and apparently whatever we thought we had been writing…it wasn’t Reality. We weren’t supposed to be writers anymore. Producers, sure. Story editors, possibly. But when it comes to Reality, writers need not apply.

Melissa Jo Peltier

Reality Writers: The Great Unwashed of the WGA

In the book world, no one would think to deny nonfiction authors their props as writers. Truman Capote was as lauded for In Cold Blood as he was for The Grass Harp. Both Studs Terkel and Michael Crichton are equally honored as scribes in their recent obituaries. Nonfiction authors might be liars (see Frey, James—A Million Little Pieces), but no one disputes that the specific act of imagining concepts, translating them into language, and committing them to paper has occurred. In non-fiction television, however, there’s still a lingering perception that no actual writing is involved in the creation and production of series featuring “real people” instead of actors, or that whatever rudimentary writing does take place is somehow of a far inferior variety than that which fits neatly into a Final Draft format.

A commenter on Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood blog named “Colin B.” wrote: “When I see a writer I know in the credits of a Reality show, it’s usually a weak writer who couldn’t make it in scripted TV.” The United Hollywood blog received this comment from “Dave” during the recent strike: “Reality writers are unskilled labor. We’ve all seen Reality TV, and the prose is not going to win any awards, I’m sorry. Tell me, if you’re a writer on say The Sopranos or House, do you want to be in the same guild as the guy who helped ‘write’ My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance? The very reason that studios can fire Reality writers at the drop of a hat is because they know they can replace them with no trouble. If your skills made you valuable, companies would fight to keep you.”

We could bring up the fact that, following Dave’s logic, the writers of Michael Clayton and The Departed should be indignant about sharing membership in a Guild category with the authors of Gigli and Deuce Bigelow. Nowhere in the MBA can we find any assertion that literary quality is a qualifier for pension and health coverage. But we’ve got to admit, Colin B.’s and Dave’s comments still sting.

Because we have each written both dramatic and documentary scripts, we know the constraints of “truth” can sometimes actually make telling creative, compelling nonfiction stories more difficult to execute. After all, we can’t bring a character back from the dead, have her discover a previously unknown evil twin or wake up to realize that it was all a dream. But we take heart in the fact that we can churn out lame dialogue, just as well as some of our brothers and sisters in fiction.

“I’ve worked on shows where I literally script out dialogue for two non-actors to banter back and forth,” says Emily Sinclar, a Reality writer speaking out in a WGA-sponsored video. “Reality is absolutely written.”

“You’re involved every step of the way in these shows,” adds John McLaughlin, winner of a shared Writers Guild Award for his work on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit. “You’re involved in preproduction, production, and postproduction. And you’re writing every step of the way.”

Life at the Children’s Table

Reality show writers were America’s Biggest Losers in the 2007 WGA contract battle. Though we made progress in terms of airing our cause out in the open for the first time, as well as being publicly validated by such WGA luminaries as Paul Haggis, our concerns were shunted aside as contract negotiations came down to the wire. Those of us who work in this area of television still feel we’re regarded as second-class citizens by our fellow scribes. Guild president Patric Verrone promises that the WGA hasn’t deserted us forever. “The Writers Guilds West and East are committed to seeing writers of Reality television covered under WGA contracts,” he says, “so that they get the basic benefits that all writers in this industry deserve and most have come to expect.”

Yet conditions on the ground out here remain pretty bleak.

After hiring an independent research agency to look into the working conditions of Reality writers, the Guild published the findings in a 2007 document called “Harsh Reality.” Based on a survey of 300 Reality writers, they include:

  • Only 3 percent of Reality writers are actually given the job title of “writer.”
  • 69 percent of Reality writers create storylines or outlines based on previously shot footage; 55 percent create “paper cuts,” which consist of written outlines for a Reality TV episode; 54 percent write material for a host to read or for characters to read as voiceover. Other duties include devising the concept or structure for a show and creating scenarios, games and tasks for a program.
  • Reality TV writers spend an average of 18 weeks working on a particular production.

“Working without a WGA contract on a show is demoralizing,” says John McLaughlin. “We do as much work as anyone else does, but we don’t get pension, we don’t get health coverage, we don’t usually get fairly compensated, we definitely don’t get residuals. But almost more important than anything else, we don’t get credit.”

In the current climate, working as a Reality writer is like sitting at the children’s table—but without chairs. In drama, a Story by credit is a Writers Guild title. So is a Created by label. But those credits are denied to those Guild members who create a Reality series. Similarly, the fiction writer’s starting point of an outline that breaks down the story beats and the character’s arc bears an uncanny resemblance to its nonfiction counterpart. “Just like scripted television, writing and producing go hand in hand,” says David Rupel, who has written and produced on both fiction (Homicide: Life on the Street) and nonfiction (Big Brother, Temptation Island). “The majority of my Reality credits are for producing, not writing, but I’m always using my skills as a storyteller. For example, when Monica and Chandler slept together on Friends, it was referred to as a ‘plot twist.’ When the tribes didn’t merge as expected on this season’s Survivor, it’s simply known as a ‘twist.’ The subtle language difference implies that somehow the twists in Reality magically happen on their own. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is every bit as much thought, debate, and imagination behind every twist you see on Reality—both big and small.”

A few years back, we produced the Reality series Takedown for Court TV—recently renamed TruTV. (Like all our MPH Entertainment productions, it was a WGA and DGA covered show .) The premise was that each week a team of con men and magicians would attempt to cheat at gambling and other games of chance while cameras rolled. Although we never knew exactly what would happen during production—including whether or not our scam artists would get caught—we pre-scripted each episode in exacting detail: five acts laid out scene-by-scene, complete with cliff-hanging act breaks. When we were thrown a curveball, like the time when head con man Paul Wilson switched in his loaded dice during a meet-and-greet with the casino owner instead of at the craps table as planned, we’d puzzle out how to retell that part of the story in post. “Digging through dozens of hours of tape, we’d search for the beats we’d originally scripted,” says Kelly McPherson, head writer and producer of the series, “then improvise when our con men went off the reservation.”

Many situational Reality shows go much further than this, as Joel Stein’s purloined Queer Eye script confirms. (It’s a fascinating document that still exists as a PDF file on the Los Angeles Times website.) This type of pre-scripted Reality style has become the norm in the Reality world. Shows like The Simple Life, Flavor of Love, and Growing Up Gotti are trumpeted as “hybrid-sitcoms” or “docusoaps” when being pitched to network executives. “Soft-scripted” is the newspeak term that’s evolved to describe programs like The Hills and Real Housewives of Orange County. What, we wonder, is the fine line between a “soft-scripted” show and something like Larry David’s brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is highly structured but allows for improv within the scenes themselves? Is the only difference the gaping chasm of acting ability between the “real” people in one and the skilled professional performers in the other? To us, it seems that the distinction between “soft-scripted” and “scripted television” is about as real as Sarah Palin’s division between real and fake America.

“The way I explain my work to my close friends still in the scripted world,” says comedy writer Dena Waxman, “is to call it low-budget Curb Your Enthusiasm.” When Dena was hired for her current job as a supervising story producer on an unnamed “Reality sitcom,” her agent got a call specifically seeking a female sitcom writer. Dena had worked her way up in the sitcom world and paid her dues, starting as a writer’s assistant, then pitching and selling freelance stories and pilots, then working up to coveted staff positions in writers’ rooms. She enjoyed the respect, credits, and benefits of full WGA membership. In 2004, however, the bottom dropped out of the television sitcom market and, because Dena also had extensive production experience, her agent suggested she look into the booming Reality world as a possible source of employment. “On one hybrid-sitcom I worked on,” Dena tells us, “I sat in a room with two other comedy writers and our job was to pitch story ideas and write—the same thing I do in the writers’ rooms of traditional sitcoms. The only difference is that I don’t agonize over specific words to use like I did when scripting drama, but I create structure. Reality is primarily about structure—story arcs, character arcs, creating conflict, act breaks, and back-up plans in case what we’ve outlined doesn’t play out exactly the way we planned. I do script dialogue for the reality stars. It’s done to tell the story more effectively or more humorously.”

Another startling difference is in the workload in the trenches of these “soft-scripted” programs. Dena elaborates: “My close friends who are sitcom writers are floored when I tell them how much work I actually do. I’ve shown them the outlines I produce. They can’t believe that I work with only one or two other writers, as opposed to the 10 to 20 people on an average scripted sitcom. I have so much more responsibility than just writing. I’m also a producer, communicating my vision to the field production teams, giving input on props, wardrobe, and locations. If there’s a problem in the field, I’ll get a phone call and have to do rewrites while we’re shooting. I’m responsible for supervising the edit of my episodes, which can entail managing a team of editors, loggers, and story assistants as well as incorporating several rounds of network notes.”

It’s All In The Game

Game show writing? “Hi, I’m Pat Sajak!”—you mean, that’s not improvised? When friends of game show scribe Peter Scott ask, “What kind of writing is there on game shows?” he answers: “Well, we write the questions.” Without questions, contest rules, or host copy, a game show wouldn’t exist, which is probably why old stalwarts Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune have always been WGA-covered, as is the ubiquitous Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But many game shows and competition-based shows, which dominate the network Reality schedules, have borrowed the trick of keeping their writers in the non-union ghetto by calling them editorial staff, segment producers, and story producers.

“Each game show has its own style—some are witty and whimsical while others are more straightforward,” says Scott, who is currently head writer on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, the hit series from Reality uber-mogul Mark Burnett. While the rest of Burnett’s primetime shows remain writer-free according to their end credits, Fifth Grader is now a Guild-represented show. Even though Scott admits there are some gray areas in Reality, he hopes that game show writing can act as a bridge to help people understand the nonfiction/Reality writing process. “In games shows, it’s pretty basic. We think up questions and write them down. With Reality, the burden is on us to prove that what we’re doing is writing, to demonstrate that what we do falls under the category of writing and creating.”

“By any standard, I’m low on the industry totem pole,” producer, comedian, and former Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? writer Doug Gordon writes in a November 2007 edition of Salon. He adds an important caveat: “What was the first movie to be featured as a promotional tie in with the McDonald’s Happy Meal?—your choices are Star Wars, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or Raiders of the Lost Ark—is not likely to make it into Bartlett’s next to, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ but it didn’t exist anywhere on network television until I wrote it.” (The answer: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

We’ll Fix It in Post

According to many of the top Reality executive producers and showrunners, their employees toiling under various fabricated titles don’t deserve to be credited as writers because Reality is “created in the editing room.” This is yet another excuse for keeping Reality writers anonymous, undercompensated, and overworked at the service of executive producer and network profits.

We’re not in any way minimizing editors’ contributions to Reality shows. Both former editors ourselves, we’d choose a great documentary editor any day over someone who’s only cut drama from scripted scenes, and we’re fortunate to be working with several such pros on our WGA-covered show, Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan. After the first cut, however, we have to put on our writer-producer hats to focus, restructure, and help create a theme for the segment, which will go through several more passes before being shipped off for network notes, which are often extensive. After that, there’s the shaping of the show itself, the host narration to be written, the wraps, the teases, tags, and bumpers. And this is all for a show where absolutely nothing in the field (save Cesar’s arrivals to the dog owner’s front doors) is fabricated…what we like to call the last “real” Reality show on television.

Dog Whisperer is a fairly simple show to produce, with only two cameras and no more than a couple of days shooting involved in most segments. In more complex Reality programs, contest shows, and docusoaps, footage pours in at a much faster rate than editors can keep up with, so it’s up to the “anything but writers” to keep the big picture in mind. Kent McGorry, writing in Post magazine, describes the process used by 3Ball Production’s The Biggest Loser. “3Ball has a team set up—story editors, story producers, transcribers, assistant editors, as well as key editors such as [Karl] Kimbrough—to design and build episodes. That team makes it much easier to get through the footage and the story arc. Story editors work with lots of clips in QuickTime on DVDs, ‘and sometimes they’re in the field and they come back with a story arc that they’re highly aware of and can relay to us.’ Each episode has four story-producing teams assigned to it as well as editing teams. ‘The story producers are ahead of the editors in terms of the arcs,’ says Kimbrough.” McGorry and Kimbrough’s description of the “story-producing teams” makes them seem suspiciously like writers.

In other instances, story producers and editors work together in the edit bay to mix and match field footage that fabricates storylines that never happened, relationships that never existed, and even sentences that were never spoken—“Frankenbites.” To build a story where story never existed in the first place—to create order out of chaos—isn’t that the heart and soul of writing?

“The editors I work with call me their writer,” says Dena Waxman, who, in the service of her latest job, has also been editing on the Avid, compiling what are called string cuts or radio cuts from the raw footage, to save precious time in the bay. “Last night I was in post, working with an editor until after midnight. He’ll get overtime, which is nice. I won’t.”

Respect for Writing

As sticklers for good wordsmithing ourselves, we’re both still reeling over Dave’s and Colin B.’s remarks suggesting those of us not working in dramatic film and television are a bunch of unskilled amateurs. It’s possible that the explosion of Reality shows and their insatiable appetite for story has created more jobs series than there are talented people to make them great. Reality series on both cable and network are rife with awkward plotting, unrealistic situations, and narration with glaring grammatical errors or an overreliance on the nap-inducing passive voice. But don’t blame the writers for everything. Remember, just as in dramatic television, Reality television stories, structures, and scripts are also subject to being “noted to death” by network executives seeking this week’s formula for ratings.

We were once ordered by executives at a certain network to write entire shows in the present tense, whether they were about current events or ancient Egypt, because “that’s the network’s policy.” Kelly McPherson still remembers his experience on Takedown, where the entire tone of the show changed when a new executive came on board: “Originally, the show was a little film noir, lighter, and didn’t take itself too seriously. Our new network executive had much bigger plans, suggesting lines such as, ‘Using state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, never-before-seen, one-of-a-kind space-age computers, lasers, and microchips, we’re going to take this casino for billions of dollars in less than two hours.’ It was a challenge to whip out the thesaurus so we could insert every possible superlative known to man into our scripts. We produced 12 scam-packed episodes, and I can honestly say, other than creating outlines, crafting scripts, and writing state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, never-before seen, one-of-a-kind VO, there was absolutely no writing whatsoever for the Reality series Takedown.”

All writers in the entertainment industry suffer from the indignities of the network notes call. It’s heartbreaking to envision a passion project in any genre, only to watch it morph through the development process into something formulaic or ordinary. In our experience, one side effect of the lack of WGA contracts in Reality nonfiction is that it gives tacit permission for network executives to run roughshod over our work, hijacking the creative process to an extent that would never be tolerated in drama. We’ve had network execs with dubious credentials redline our scripts and rewrite narration in their own words. “No network executive I’ve ever worked with would even think of picking up a pencil to change a writer’s line of dialogue,” says John Gray, creator of Ghost Whisperer and the writer-director of more than a dozen TV movies and miniseries. “If someone did, it not only would be considered the ultimate professional insult, it would also be a matter for WGA intervention.”

If our fellow writers not only disrespect but also denigrate what we spend 10 to 14 hours a day doing to make a living, how can we possibly expect network executives to honor our talents and opinions? “I believe that once we Original Recipe Writers (feature and ‘scripted’ TV) learn what it is [that] Reality and game show writers actually do, we will realize that they are scribblers just like us,” writes dramatic scribe Ashley Gable in Nikki Finke’s blog. “Seriously, guys, there’s writing going on. I’ve seen the outlines. We shouldn’t let the companies tell us who is a writer and who’s not. Right now, that’s what’s happening.”

Illusion of Reality

Thankfully, one theory we don’t hear much anymore is that to credit Reality shows with having “writers” will destroy the illusion that these documentary-lites aren’t actually real. Who would want to crush the dreams of millions of 14-year-old girls who truly believe they can grow up to be just like Lauren Conrad in The Hills—come to the big city and immediately land a luxury apartment and a prestigious job that pays for your high-end wardrobe, so you can spend every night partying in Hollywood clubs and having spats and make-ups with your rotating roster of BFFs? That argument doesn’t hold water because by now, even the most “low-information” viewer understands that most Reality TV is far from an objective slice of life caught on tape. A 2006 Time poll revealed that only 30 percent of respondents believed that Reality shows reflect what really happened, and a full 25 percent of them believed that the programs are almost totally fabricated. More than half said accuracy was not a factor in their enjoyment of Reality TV. So whom are we trying to fool?

“Networks and corporations have gotten used to the management model whereby Reality is not union, and they benefit from the money saved,” says Reality writer J. Ryan Stradal. Patric Verrone agrees: “It is a daunting task to convince producers (with budgets limited by intransigent, collusive networks) to make Guild deals, but the fact that some have, and others leave themselves open to legal exposure for violation of wage and hour laws, gives us hope that, if we continue to pressure them, more will yield. In the meantime, the guilds will continue to organize Reality, nonfiction, and game show writers to share information, experiences, and strategies to better their working lives and to help develop the solidarity and determination it will take to win their struggle for WGA benefits.”

The bottom line is that Reality shows are making fortunes for networks and advertisers and some production companies—more money, in the aggregate, than many dramatic series are bringing in. Whether or not you believe My Fair Brady is of the same cinematic caliber as The Brady Bunch, it takes the craft of storytelling to put both types of programs together.

Storytelling is storytelling. That’s what writers do. So why do our long-suffering, non-WGA scribes continue to work, uncredited, in Reality TV? It’s because we work in a competitive business, and right now Reality is the biggest game in town.

“Sometimes it comes down to, ‘Do you want a job or don’t you?’ I do believe that the writing work being done on reality shows should be covered by the WGA, but until then I feel lucky to be working,” says Waxman. “This is what I do. I enjoy storytelling. I just love the creative process.”

“If you are being asked to create, you are a writer,” says Emily Sinclair. “And it’s important to understand that.”

The strike might be over, the contract set in ink, but Reality writers are still out here, we’re still working, and we’re not going away.

1At MPH, compensation for WGA writers working on cable Reality shows is calculated under the Hitchcock formula, which means that, since cable networks maintain their right to air and re-air a program without limitation, the contracts are buyouts and no residuals are claimed. We see this as an important first step toward full union coverage for nonfiction, but by no means is it the end of the journey.