By Josef Adalian
Right now, the first star of the modern reality TV era– "Survivor" meanie Richard Hatch– is holed up somewhere in a Pennsylvania halfway house, serving out the remainder of a four-year prison sentence for tax evasion.
Meanwhile, on the Costa Rican set of NBC’s "I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!," Hatch’s bastard stepchildren, Spencer and Heidi Pratt, are busy flexing every one of their underdeveloped acting muscles as part of their desperate bid to stay at the center of the network’s silly summer sideshow.
Hatch and the Pratts don’t have much in common, save for this: All three reality "stars" acted their way to celebrity. They’re part of an ever-growing roster of "talent" who provide thespian-like services to reality producers at cut-rate prices.
And it’s about time producers admit what’s going on, and begin compensating their actors for the services provided.
The probability of this happening, of course, is about as likely as universal health care being passed this year without any opposition by the Republicans.
As it is, reality producers– like their scripted peers– are already being forced to slash budgets as networks try to rein in costs wherever possible. Since reality shows are largely non-union, it’s much easier to squeeze budget savings from "Hell’s Kitchen" than "House."
Paying the "Biggest Losers" and "Survivors" of the world more coin just because it’s right? Not gonna happen.
But there’s a better reason producers need to be thinking about declaring their contestants actors, and paying them accordingly. If they don’t act on their own, eventually the government might step in and order them to do so.
It’s already happened in France.
Without much fanfare, that country’s highest court ruled last week that participants in a local version of "Temptation Island" were actually performers and were entitled to contracts and compensation similar to that provided more established thespians.
And in the U.K., the New York Times noted that the government was looking into working conditions on reality shows after the much-hyped breakdown of Susan Boyle after her surprise loss on "Britain’s Got Talent."
Now, France is generally a worker’s paradise compared to the U.S. I mean, they still get to take vacations over there.
In the U.S., bloggers aren’t even allowed bathroom breaks, lest they miss out on a single nugget of news.
What’s more, attempts by the Writers Guild of America to unionize reality workers have largely flopped. There simply are too many struggling editors and producers looking to make a Hollywood breakthrough, and willing to work crazy hours to do so.
But there’s a big difference between reality "writers" and reality "actors."
The former are faceless drones who toil in obscurity, not unlike the millions of other Americans who work $9 per hour jobs with no benefits. They’re being taken advantage of, to a degree, but no more so than many others in 2009 America.
By contrast, reality stars– when producers do their jobs– become a part of our culture.
Like Richie Cunningham, Sam Malone or Jessica Fletcher, the reality stars of the 2000s are beloved by many, and in some cases loathed, even more so in some cases because they’re real. The reason Jon and Kate Gosselin are on the cover of People this week is because millions of Americans have grown to think of the couple and their brood as parts of their extended family.
So imagine what will happen once a popular reality star on a U.S. show decides to disregard the carefully crafted legal documents all unscripted contestants are forced to sign, and opts to file a suit against a producer.
Indeed, one attorney told the Times he’s already talking to lawyers in the States about how to structure cases challenging the notion that reality stars are contestants, rather than actors.
"You will see that France is not an exception — this isn’t just the crazy French or anything like that,” said Jérémie Assous, the French lawyer who represented the "real people" in the "Temptation Island" case.
But even if U.S. courts prove unfriendly to such a plea, producers have to be concerned about government intervention. If a Susan Boyle-like situation were to arise here, is there any doubt some politicians would race to take advantage of the situation by introducing a reality star bill of rights?
I’m sure some producers reading this will sigh that most reality participants really aren’t the same as actors. While the Pratts might be willing to take off camera direction from producers– I’ve got no proof that’s happening, but…c’mon– they’ll argue that the average "real" person can’t be controlled or depended upon to provide the drama producers need.
Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean many reality producers don’t try their darndest to coax their talent into providing the plot points they’ve written up well in advance. And it doesn’t change the fact that once they find a little bit of fame, many reality stars– like the Gosselins or Tiffany "New York" Pollard– don’t immediately find themselves being courted by agents and managers.
Rather than continuing to maintain the fiction that contestants aren’t performers, reality producers need to admit the truth and start treating their actors with the respect they deserve. That doesn’t mean the cast of "Survivor" ought to have plush trailers waiting for them off-camera between immunity challenges, or that the…um, "ladies" on VH1’s "…of Love" franchise out to get spa treatments after every cat fight.
But why not pay stipends of more than a couple hundred dollars a day? And if a show works, why not give participants a bonus in recognition of a job well done?
I know, it all sounds naive. But as modern reality prepares to enter its second decade, it seems inevitable that those folks who’ve had so much to do with the genre’s success will eventually step up and demand to share in the spoils.
“Producers aren’t above the law,” Assous said. “They have to respect the law, just like Michelin or McDonald’s.”