BROOKE GLADSTONE: That of course, was Frank Costanza, George's father on the late-great sit com Seinfeld, a genre increasingly pushed aside in favor of the reality TV show. Why? One reason is that reality TV is cheaper to produce, partly because it doesn't employ pricey scriptwriters. But, according to the Writers Guild of America, reality shows do employ writers of a kind, people who piece together story arcs from hundreds of hours of raw tape, for shows ranging from Big Brother to Project Runway, to Battle of the Network Reality Stars, which debuts on Bravo Wednesday. And so the question is, should reality show story editors be recognized under the same union rules that protect traditional writers? Daniel Petrie, Jr. thinks so. He's the president of the Writers Guild of America west, which has organized a class action lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles Superior Court. Daniel, welcome to On the Media.
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I want to start with what seems to be the central premise of this lawsuit, that reality show editors and producers are, in effect, writers. I should mention that as president of the WGA, you're required to be a working writer. And among your credits, are the movies Beverly Hills Cop and The Big Easy, one of my favorites. So--
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're welcome. So make the case that what these reality show workers do is akin to what you do as a screenwriter.
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: In some cases on a reality show they work from an outline of 100 pages. Whether they do it beforehand or after the fact by going through footage and putting things together, they're doing exactly what I do. They're creating compelling situations, suspense, comedy, drama--characters, certainly--and leave some things resolved and others things to get people to tune in next week. That's what the storytellers of reality TV do. They do it well, and they do it, unfortunately, without the benefits of a union contract. They don't get health insurance, for example. They don't get reasonable working conditions or any of the other things that writers who are, like me, under the Writers Guild umbrella, receive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, you've collected over a thousand signatures for this lawsuit. And they're employees of shows like the Bachelorette or something called Are You Hot. What sort of evidence will be submitted as part of the suit?
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: These people are contracted for 84-hour work weeks, in some instances. And I have a pay stub which shows a writer who has an 800-dollar-a-week deal, broken down into 40 hours of straight time at 7.41 an hour, 40 hours of time and a half overtime at 7.41 an hour, and 4 hours of guaranteed double time at 7.41 an hour, which is a violation of the law. And, by the way, you know, just in terms of just human fairness, that's 12 hours a day, seven days a week!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why can't the reality show workers, if they're not strictly speaking screenwriters or TV writers, why can't they just form their own union?
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: They could, but they think it's appropriate that they're represented by the Writers Guild, and so do we. Listen, the Writers Guild represents screenwriters and traditionally scripted television writers, but we also represent writers who write questions for game shows, writers who write intros for 20/20. We represent the groups of writers who write jokes for late night talk shows. So it's not a kind of one size fits all profession. There are many types of writing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, one reason, we are told, why there are so many reality shows is that they're so cheap to produce, as little as half the price of a scripted show. And some argue that this lawsuit, if successful, will naturally drive up the cost of production and make it less likely that a network, like ABC and CBS who are defendants in this suit, will even gamble on a show like the Real Gilligan's Island, which is one of the programs named in the suit. Won't this end up hurting reality show workers?
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: No. First of all, we do not feel that bringing basic union protections such as health care will fundamentally alter the economic advantages of doing reality TV. I don't think that the companies would be doubling, tripling their costs by any means. I think it would be an incremental increase in their costs. And if every reality show producer needs to be part of a union environment, then no one company is at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's the best-case scenario for you? What do you want the lawsuit to achieve--damages, back pay, the recognition of reality show workers as writers, all of the above?
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: You know, we don't care so much about their recognition as writers because part of the fun of reality TV is the belief that this is reality. So, you know, they can continue to call them story editors or associate this or that. Or call them Matilda, for all I care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: Just so long as the union is recognized and we get to represent these "storytellers" and get 'em health insurance and the basic protections of the union contract.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Dan, thank you very much.
DANIEL PETRIE, JR.: Oh, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Petrie, Jr. is the president of the Writers Guild of America West, and the co-author of the 1989 Tom Hanks movie Turner and Hootch.