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Reality Strikes

GOTH MEMOIRIST (COTTONMOUTH KISSES), fashion maven and former club kid Clint Catalyst is featuring a black flattop, sideburns and a red T-shirt emblazoned with the Writers Guild of America logo.

“Hello, thanks for coming,” he calls out to a reporter on a broiling day last week.

It’s probably one of the few times Catalyst doesn’t mind wearing what everyone else has on, as he and about 25 other red–T-shirted protesters are picketing the West L.A. offices of America’s Next Top Model, hoping to gain union recognition for the show’s writers.

Model is the hit program in which a group of young women live together while competing for a modeling contract to be awarded by a panel of judges headed by Tyra Banks, the show’s creator. Like every other reality-TV show, Model credits no writers; instead, viewers may glimpse the names of 12 associate or assistant producers who are actually the show’s writing team.

One problem for the new CW Network is that if these “producers” were listed as writers, they would be eligible for membership in the Writers Guild of America — and the salary levels and benefits that would come with union membership.

A second problem for the network came July 21, when the 12 writers went on strike and began picketing Model’s production company on Sepulveda Boulevard. This being Hollywood (or almost-Hollywood-adjacent), the WGA provided a double-wide dressing-room trailer with bathrooms and air conditioning for the strikers to retreat to during the recent heat wave.

By noon, Catalyst and three other young writers from the show are already feeling the heat’s wilting punch. Even so, they are eager to talk about the strike — much more eager, anyway, than executive producer Ken Mok, who was out of town and didn’t return calls, or the spokesperson for CW Network entertainment division president Dawn Ostroff, who said flatly, “There will be no comment.”

As they cool off inside the cramped double-wide from their daylong vigil carrying signs (“Reality Needs a Rewrite,” “Tyra Is Beautiful, Union-Busting Is Ugly”), Catalyst and fellow writers Kai Bowe, Michele Mills and Sara Sluke are quick to express their devotion to the show and its creators, saying they were counting on Tyra Banks’ sympathy.

“She’s a member of SAG and AFTRA, so we know she’s a union girl,” said Bowe.

But they are just as quick to dispel any notions that they are living the Hollywood high life.

“Writing for reality TV,” says Catalyst, “is a contest in the industry to see who will work for the least. Because they don’t have the minimums that they have in traditionally scripted television, there is no cutoff point here as to how low it can go.” In fact, because they are not credited, the 12 Top Model writers have no salary minimums, health insurance or pension plans.

“I drive a 2000 Camry with dents all over it,” Catalyst continues. “I’m not leading the glamorous life in [my] small, one-bedroom apartment. I pay $334 a month for health insurance, which, with my student-loan payments and rent, doesn’t leave a lot left over.”

“I [have] the bare-bones, ‘In Case I Get Hit by a Bus My Parents Won’t Lose Their House’ policy,” adds Sara Sluke regarding her health insurance. Bowe claims she has none at all.

THE 12 WRITERS ARE QUICKLY getting schooled in the realities of labor politics in the age of Bush. Instead of accepting the writers’ signed preference cards that declared their desire to join the union, Anisa Productions Inc., the show’s producers, proposed a “secret ballot” supervised by the National Labor Relations Board — a tactic that is currently tying up union organizing efforts for a variety of workers, from hotel service employees to nurses.

“An NLRB secret-ballot election could take place in anywhere between 90 days to a year,” complains Bowe. “First we’d have to petition for the election, then get it approved, have the election, and then see if [the company] contests the results.”

“This is clearly a stall tactic,” Sluke says, “because they know that by the time we had this election, we’d be wrapped.”

“There’s 12 of us all onboard with this. It’s not like a giant Norma Rae factory — we sit right next to Ken!” adds Mills.

Not helping the producers’ case, as far as the writers are concerned, is the fact that last year, the show accepted its editors’ entrance into the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union without a ballot election.

Although the title “unscripted TV-show writer” may sound oxymoronic to a public that imagines that such shows spontaneously unfold as a series of real-time cat fights and personality meltdowns, the program’s success depends on the strength of its storytelling. A team of two Model writers will typically view about 240 hours of video of the competing would-be models. The writers then work backward to construct storylines, character arcs, subplots and red herrings from the raw material. They never write a word of dialogue.

“That’s how all documentaries work, from Nanook of the North to Michael Moore’s,” notes Mills. “And writers are credited on documentaries.”

The CW, which was formed early this year from the old UPN and WB networks, is planning to launch its inaugural season September 20, with Model as its flagship program. For the CW, the summer months are its picking season, when its new Model episodes should be written. But if the network now finds itself under the gun, there’s also enormous pressure on the WGA, which was blind-sided by the emergence of the explosively popular reality-TV format, in the same way it has been caught flat-footed over the years by new technologies ranging from videocassettes to podcasts. The union is now trying to play catch-up on a wide front of broadcast platforms, as well as with unscripted TV programs. It has signed up about 1,000 reality-TV writers and editors requesting unionization, but has won no contracts to date.

Winning an agreement with Model would mark an important breakthrough, which is why the guild is throwing its full weight behind the strike. The 12 writers have been getting support from across the city and are joined by new supporters virtually every day, including visits from Assemblyman Paul Koretz, Justice for Janitors and members of Teamster Local 399, which parked its monster organizing truck on Sepulveda at last week’s strike.

Leaving behind the double-wide’s air conditioning and returning to the fray in the midday heat, the writers are joined on the picket line by The Simpsons’ writing team, and will soon be joined by writers from King of the Hill and Family Guy. A few days earlier, former Model contestant Lisa D’Amato, wearing a sexily modified WGA T-shirt, carried a sign for a full day’s picket duty in the withering sun while demonstrating “how to walk the catwalk on the picket line.”

At the heart of most reality shows lies a Darwinian battle of wiles, wills and deceptions that produces one winner and many more losers. Model’s writers have come to find themselves in a similar situation within their profession, and their strike now puts them in very unscripted waters.

“It’s been a little surreal,” Bowe admits. “It’s almost as though someone changed the channel on us. One week we’re writing at our desks, and the next we’re in the streets yelling, ‘No contract — no scripts.’ ”


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