unscripted unrest

Reckoning With Reality

Lisa Vanderpump and Bethenny Frankel emobody a tension that has simmered for nearly 20 years between the people creating reality TV and the executives profiting from it. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Bravo; NBC via Getty Images

Bethenny Frankel got famous telling her Real Housewives of New York co-stars to go to sleep, but in her latest act of rowdiness, she’s asking them to wake up. Her self-described “Reality Reckoning” started with a July 19 Instagram video, in which the Skinnygirl founder and Bravolebrity demanded studios pay reality-TV stars the residuals they deserve, demands not dissimilar to those of striking SAG-AFTRA and WGA members calling for fairer compensation in the streaming era. “Reality TV has generated millions of dollars, and entertained people GLOBALLY and my name and likeness and content are used for years to come for free on episodes where I was paid peanuts for my work,” she wrote in a caption.

“Either I’m missing something or we’re getting screwed, too,” she added on video.

Then came the attorneys. Frankel’s legal counsel, led by the high-powered Bryan Freedman, sent letters to NBCUniversal accusing the network of “a pattern and practice of grotesque and depraved mistreatment of reality stars and crew members” and asked NBC to release cast and crew from their “draconian” contract terms and NDAs. Frankel has said that 80 people from the reality-TV world have told her they would support a unionization push for better initial compensation and equitable residuals across the industry; while no official organization effort has been announced, some former Real Housewives like Cynthia Bailey and Braunwyn Windham-Burke say they are onboard when it happens.

But in a mirroring of the rivalries, disagreements, and feuds that drive this genre, not all Bravolebrities share Frankel’s vision. Particularly skeptical is former Real Housewife and current Vanderpump Rules matriarch (and executive producer) Lisa Vanderpump, whose defense of the genre repeats a common talking point: “One of the great things about reality shows is that they’ve always been able to be produced for less money than scripted shows. And I don’t really understand how you can have a union for people that are normally plucked out of obscurity.” Each of these women has used her business sense and wry humor to become a definitive figure of reality TV, but here, they’re on oppositional sides of the genre’s status quo. Imagine reality TV as a table between the two, with Frankel trying to flip it, Teresa Giudice style, and Vanderpump fighting that upending.

Baked into Vanderpump’s response is both an acceptance of the genre’s historically low production budgets (a 2013 WGA East white paper reported reality-TV budgets as low as $100,000 per episode, compared with $2 million for scripted TV), and an overvaluation of the fame afforded to “obscure” individuals — the very status quo approach to exposure-as-payment Frankel is criticizing. “The monetization in my other businesses was a great justification to take a measly paycheck,” she says in a July 19 Instagram video where she admits to getting paid only $7,250 for the first season of RHONY.

Frankel and Vanderpump are embodying a tension that has simmered for nearly 20 years between the people creating this content and the executives profiting from it, one that touches on both clearly defined issues — job descriptions, pay rates, guild representation — and a more nebulous sense of whether the genre’s alleged authenticity is tied to its very inequities. If the structures of a union seem uniquely dangerous for the studios who make reality television on the cheap, it’s because they would be: In front of the camera, unscripted TV has gotten by on lower pay with a promise of instant fame for on-air talent; behind it, crew members are often treated as contract workers with few benefits, hours of unpaid overtime, and shifting job responsibilities. At the same time, the genre is coveted by networks for its nimble production and profitable distribution — think of how Bravo, HGTV, and TLC are built on dozens of franchise-able offerings, many of which promise viewers direct, unfeigned, and personality-driven content.

But can reality TV’s promise of no boundaries continue if both sides of the camera are fairly compensated and thoroughly protected? Would it really disrupt the genre as we know it — that is, as a calculated, performed, and edited version of reality — to pay people on both sides of the camera more competitively, ensure that they earn health insurance and residuals, give cast the ability to speak about their experiences and crew more time to finalize episodes, and ease away from the idea that people “plucked out of obscurity” don’t deserve workers’ rights? Frankel would say no, and she’s not the first to criticize how the genre’s status quo has incorrectly assumed that worker disenfranchisement is integral to reality TV’s appeal. And after a summer of increased support for striking workers, her advocacy is reigniting a long labor movement faced with myriad obstacles.

Unlike scripted TV, which is written before filming, reality TV is often shaped by story producers, writers, and editors who work together to craft narratives during and after countless hours of footage are shot. Back in 2005, WGA West (which primarily represents film and TV writers, as well as other groups like documentarians and fiction podcasters) called reality TV an “industry sweatshop,” and nearly 1,000 story producers signed cards requesting WGA representation. But none of the production companies agreed to negotiate, with the Producers Guild of America accusing the WGA of “courting a strain of chaos for the entire industry” by categorizing reality TV’s producers as writers. In 2006, when a group of America’s Next Top Model employees voted to join WGA West, they were fired. A year later, the guild published a report titled “Harsh Reality: Working Conditions for Reality TV Writers,” explaining the slipperiness of the genre’s job titles; only 3 percent of reality writers were actually classified as such — “story producer,” “story editor,” “segment producer,” and “field producer” were more commonly used. According to the report, “69 percent of reality writers create storylines or outlines based on previously shot footage [and] use existing footage to work backwards from the ending in the most interesting way possible.”

The roadblocks continued during the 2007 writers’ strike, when the WGA dropped reality employees from its organizing efforts in order to move forward with pay deals for other writers. (“It’s not a sticking point … there is room to negotiate,” then-WGA West President Patric Verrone said of reality-TV representation in December 2007.) Since then, some crews — like those of The Biggest Loser, MasterChef, Survivor, and Swamp People — have pursued contracts through the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild. WGA East, meanwhile, unionized writers and producers at production companies Sharp Entertainment (responsible for marquee series including the 90 Day franchise, Love After Lockup, Doomsday Preppers, Property Wars, and Man v. Food) and Lion Television (Cash Cab, Dead on Arrival, and History Detectives). But these efforts have been sporadic and decentralized and lack the comprehensiveness of the guilds’ protections for scripted-TV employees. Reality TV still runs primarily via freelance laborers, who are often temporarily employed, lack benefits, and tend to make thousands less per pay period than their WGA scripted-TV counterparts.

Behind the camera, reality-TV crews are overworked and underpaid; in front of it, performers are expected to provide full access to their lives for the authenticity the genre promises to viewers — but that exposure isn’t always balanced by safety or security. Reality-TV stars have died by suicide after appearing on some series, suffered mental-health problems, and have been relentlessly harassed on social media. Yet because they are not represented by a union like SAG, they do not receive medical benefits through a guild. Compensation-wise, performers often sign contracts that exclude residual payments for re-aired or re-streamed episodes and surrender the rights to their own catchphrases. Before RHONY began airing in 2008, Frankel refused to sign a contract in which Bravo would receive a percentage of her businesses promoted on the show, prompting the network to create its infamous “Bethenny clause,” which states that if a Housewife creates a business while appearing on the show and then sells it for more than $1 million, Bravo gets a cut. Frankel’s Skinnygirl sale, Ariana Madix’s slew of sponsorship deals after Scandoval, and the Kardashians’ billion-dollar product empire are rare examples of reality-TV fame translating to next-level financial success. Meanwhile, there are no guaranteed raises per season, standardized per diems for stars who make promotional appearances, or profit-shares when it comes to sold merchandise bearing their likenesses.

So what happens next for Bethenny’s reckoning? On August 9, SAG-AFTRA said it stands “ready to assist” Frankel and her legal team and suggested reality stars join the organization under the National Code of Fair Practice for Network Television Broadcasting, which covers programs like talk shows, soap operas, and game shows, and provides annual wage increases, improved nudity provisions, and various other benefits (a separate contract than the one actors are currently striking against). But the 2022-ratified Network Code Agreement covers performers like dancers and background actors rather than individuals on personality-driven reality series, and the contract’s generally referenced “reality” language suggests that more specific terms for this industry are needed. Meanwhile, Frankel has consistently addressed reality-TV crew on her Instagram, and Freedman’s letters to NBCU touch on crew working conditions on the corporation’s series, including the “sleep, rest, and meal breaks” they might be denied and “illegal nondisclosure agreements” they’re allegedly forced to sign. Industry producers say the WGA has been in touch recently, and WGA East has recently added a page on its website about its nonfiction organizing strategy. Both WGA branches and IATSE have also been in touch with an advocacy group called the Nonfiction Coalition (a reorganized version of the now-defunct NonFiction “Union”), which expands the organizing effort beyond writers and personality-driven reality TV to include production and post-production roles across all forms of nonfiction series.

To be fair, unionizing isn’t a guarantee; production companies could refuse to come to the negotiating table as they did in the early aughts. But as evidenced by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, at a certain point the way an industry used to run becomes untenable, and a fall TV schedule packed with hastily made reality-TV programming emphasizes the demands placed upon this genre’s cast and crew to deliver credibility and spectacle in a speedy time frame and, presumably, without fair pay.

At stake amid all this is money, of course, but just as central is an outmoded idea of authenticity and how reality shows establish it. Formal contracts would mean restrictions on what a production company can and cannot do in its efforts to find, finesse, and manage reality-TV stars, and that would indeed “change the business,” as Vanderpump fretted. But it wouldn’t change the final product for viewers, who have long accepted that what they see onscreen is real but also engineered. What it will do, however, is acknowledge that creating that engineered reality is work, and compensating cast and crew fairly for that work would be one of the most authentic moves this genre could make.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the group NonFiction “Union” was working with both branches of WGA. That group disbanded in March 2021, and individuals formerly associated with that group have reorganized as the Nonfiction Coalition.

Reckoning With Reality