Strikers on the Catwalk

  • Share
  • Read Later

Director Jay Manuel (L) and host Tyra Banks on an episode of "America's Next Top Model."

The 13 glamorous contestants competing on America's Next Top Model share the same dream — to become stars of the catwalk. But the 12 writer-producers who help create one of TV's most successful reality shows have more modest ambitions, and to achieve them they are strutting their own version of the catwalk — a picket line outside the series' production studios in West Los Angeles. Early this week the entire writer-producer staff of Top Model walked off the job, alleging that the show's executive producers are hindering their efforts to join the Writers Guild of America and collect the pension and pay benefits that all television writers receive as union members. The signs they carry brandish their sentiments: "Top Model means Top $," "Reality Needs a Re-write" and "Tyra is Union — Why Not Me?"

The timing of the strike could not have been better — or, worse, depending whose side you are on. America's Next Top Model, which is hosted and produced by supermodel Tyra Banks, is a huge hit and the flagship program for the Sept. 20 launch of CW, the new network created through the merger of UPN and the WB. With hundreds of hours of raw footage shot, the series' writer-producers were in the process of shaping storylines for the episodes that viewers will tune into as the show begins its fourth season. Three episodes are finished, but the strike could delay or disrupt the rest of the season. Anisa Productions, which produces the series, released a statement saying that writers should work through the National Labor Relations Board to unionize; union members call that a stall tactic, since it would mean allowing the series to complete its season — after which the writers, they fear, could be let go.

In the year since reality writers in Hollywood have been fighting to become unionized, they've consistently come up against resistance from management. For one thing, it would increase production costs in a genre that is considerably cheaper to produce than scripted shows. But there's also the recognition that granting writers union status would be admitting that "reality" shows are more scripted than they appear to be. While the responses of contestants are allegedly spontaneous, the scenarios, plots and storylines on these shows are, in fact, crafted by writers — who often go by titles like "show producer" — functioning in much the same capacity as writers on TV's more traditional scripted sitcoms and dramas. They contend they should therefore be eligible to join the Writers Guild, which represents the majority of the industry's scribes and receive the health, pay and pension benefits that they deserve.

Kai Bowe, an associate show producer on Top Model, says she and her partner crafted 250 hours of raw footage into a full script with characters and storylines. "We don't put the words in the contestants' mouths, but a photo shoot and a watchable episode is created," says Bowe. Clint Catalyst, also an associate producer who worked on scripted television and wrote several novels before joining the Top Model staff, says, "We're storytellers. And we're not recognized as such. There's a notion that people have that there is no writing in reality television, and that's just not true. We think about what story we will shape for each contestant. We consider story lines and create a sense of drama around the girls. This is just what a writer on Lost would do."

"Essentially what they do is take the footage they watch, write outlines and treatments and put together a script that has primary and secondary characters," says Writer's Guild spokesman Gabriel Scott. "They build the narrative out of hundreds of hours of raw footage. America's Next Top Model is the highest-rated reality show and the flagship program for a new network. And here the writers don' t get the benefits that the editors and Tyra Banks get." Guild officials point out that reality writers don't accrue the portable pension and other benefits that a writer of West Wing or any other network series gets. They must wander from series to series with very little to show for it. In that respect, they are not so different from most of the contestants whose reality they craft.