The boom in reality TV during the 2007-2008 season is often attributed to the 2007 writers’ strike, but in reality the situation was far more nuanced. Over 100 reality series debuted or returned, in part because those shows didn’t feature union writers and could continue production while scripted television was halted. But at the same time, reality TV was growing in popularity following the debut of shows like Survivor in the early 2000s.
Still, even before the Writers Guild of America officially went on strike earlier this year, there was speculation that the action would lead to more opportunities for those working on unscripted productions. But now, three months into the WGA strike and three weeks into the SAG-AFTRA strike, it’s clear that’s just not the case — not to mention, jobs in the unscripted industry were scarce between even before the unions’ actions.
“I have never seen it this dry for unscripted,” Molly Schlock, an editor for series like Masterchef and Naked and Afraid tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I know many people who have not worked in three to four months. I know people who haven’t worked since December.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, “belt-tightening” and budget cuts are partially to blame for the dwindling reality show opportunities, and that may have been the case with or without the strikes. And this lack of jobs also comes after the networks increased their unscripted TV output by 81 percent with their “strike-proof” schedules.
“The jobs were few and far between the last few months, and you’d see a thousand people applying for a job, whereas normally you’d see maybe a hundred or less,” says Eric Hirsch, who has worked as a story producer on the Real Housewives franchise and other Bravo series. “There was this gold rush the last couple years in the reality TV world, especially coming out of COVID. Now they’re pulling back, and they were hesitant [to spend ahead of the strikes]. So, this winter was extremely dead for reality TV. No one was working.”
But the strikes, of course, add a new wrinkle to any ongoing productions. One anonymous Netflix editor says that an unscripted project filled with celebrity cameos has been pushed at least four months because of the SAG-AFTRA strike. Technically, SAG-AFTRA members are allowed to make appearances on game shows and reality television under the union guidelines, but that doesn’t mean actors will do so. Many will likely opt out to continue showing solidarity with their union. As of now, The Masked Singer and Dancing With the Stars, both of which rely on celebrities to function, are still moving forward for the fall season, but only one cast member, Ariana Madix, has been announced for the latter.
The dual strikes are also raising more awareness about working conditions across the industry, in recent weeks prompting people like The Real Housewives of New York’s Bethenny Frankel and Selling Sunset’s Mary Bonnet to speak in support of creating a union for reality TV performers. One anonymous producer tells The Hollywood Reporter that several producers have spoken out in support of unionizing as well, but because there is currently a lull in work opportunities, most producers are currently more focused on finding jobs and getting a paycheck than organizing for better working conditions.
But it’s not unheard of for the crews of unscripted programs to unionize. In 2012, the crew of Masterchef secured a union contract through IATSE. In 2014, a walk-out on the set of Survivor led to the editors and post-production crew doing the same. In 2013, the editorial crew of Swamp People went on strike. While these individual shows still have union contracts to this day, there is still no overarching union protection for many of the crew members who work unscripted shows.
During the 2007 Writers’ Strike, one of the initiatives was to include reality show producers in the WGA contract because many of them also write, but it was ultimately dropped. That point does not seem to be on the table for WGA’s current negotiations.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.