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Reality Boom Elevates Editors

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As writers struggle to gain status and union protection on reality shows, experienced editors are enjoying a fast track to higher paychecks and senior positions.

With new reality efforts springing up across the broadcast spectrum and every niche cable network mining the genre to find a breakout hit, producers are vying for candidates in an ever-shrinking talent production pool. Though staffing reality positions with experienced staff can be difficult in general, sources said no position is tougher to staff than editor.

“In reality shows, the timing, the drama, the storytelling and the characters are all created in the edit suite,” said Mark Cronin, an independent executive producer of reality shows including “The Surreal Life.” “And there really aren’t that many talented people who can do all those things.”

Many of the first reality editors were veterans of scripted programming and had storytelling experience. As reality boomed, more and more editors were pulled from lower and lower rungs on the seniority ladder. Now, said Emmy-nominated former “Survivor” editor Rod Spence, “even people in film school have been sucked dry.”

Average salary figures for editors are not available, since some shows are covered by union contracts and others are not. On a union show, an editor can expect to make $32 to $42 an hour, according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. But rates and deals vary from editor to editor and from show to show.

There is, however, anecdotal evidence of an increase. Every person contacted for this story agreed-though to differing degrees-that editor salaries have risen due to reality shows.

“In the past two years the weekly rate for an editor has at least doubled, if not tripled,” Mr. Cronin said. “You can easily find editors who were making $2,000 a week now making $5,000.”

While Patrick Graham, publisher of Below the Line, a trade publication for theatrical and television crew members, said the increase was less dramatic. “We haven’t seen near double [rate increase], but we have seen increased demand of those who are Avid-certified,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Graham also pointed out that reality shows typically use a hurried production schedule to help reduce costs and beat competitive projects to the finish line. Crews, especially those working on pilots, often work long hours on back-to-back projects. Burnout is common-something that can further reduce the talent pool.

“Reality shows are burning out a lot of crew,” Mr. Graham said. “They’re throwing pilots at these things like crazy. It’s a hard-core burnout war field.”

Like improved salaries, promotions have also become easier to get. “All those guys who started on `The Real World’ and `Survivor’-everybody wants them,” said one top reality talent agent. “They’re so in demand. Editors are becoming players.”

Not everybody agrees, however, that editors are the kings of the reality business. Bertram van Munster, Emmy-winning executive producer of “The Amazing Race,” said the importance of an editor depends on the show.

“The editors in my company don’t have the responsibility of the creation of the show,” he said. “`The Amazing Race’ is shot chronologically and not edited in the room. We don’t need to fabricate anything; it’s already there.”

And though Mr. van Munster agreed demand for editors has increased, he added a caveat: “The demands for everybody have increased,” he said. “Cinematographers, good audio people, field producers-across the board there’s tremendous demand for all those people who are qualified. If people want to burn out, it’s up to them.”

One consequence of the crew crunch, sources said, has been a decrease in the quality of reality programming. Whereas such early reality milestones as “Survivor,” “The Real World,” “The Bachelor” and “American Idol” helped set a standard for production and storytelling, the bombardment of new shows has inevitably resulted in diminishing returns.

“All of a sudden you’re seeing the reality talent pool is spread too thin and the quality of some projects are suffering because you’re not able to put together a good enough creative team,” said Mr. Cronin, who compared the problem with the way demand for sitcom writers in the 1980s and early 1990s increasingly resulted in mediocre shows.

As for former sitcom writers who are now struggling to find jobs in reality, Mr. Spence had a suggestion.

“Those people should be editors,” he said.