LOS ANGELES – A dozen striking TV workers are demanding their bosses face reality.
The "America's Next Top Model" employees contend that their tasks on the series should be classified as writing and earn them the union pay and benefits they're not getting in their real-life drama.
At stake is more than a successful program that will help anchor the new CW network in its fall launch. The strike against "America's Next Top Model" also is the latest and most aggressive move in the Writers Guild of America, west's two-year effort to unionize reality TV.
Sara Sluke and Kai Bowe, who have been picketing outside the production offices of "America's Next Top Model" since walking out more than two weeks ago, say their challenge is to avoid casting doubt on reality TV's legitimacy.
They're not claiming that they create dialogue for contestants and are eager to dispel that assumption, the women said. But they argue the work they do in shaping the series constitutes storytelling and they want to be represented by the WGA, which is eager to do so.
"There seems to be this idea that we feed lines to the girls and that we really do manipulate the actual shooting. That is not true at all," Sluke said.
Instead, the striking staffers — whose job titles are show producer or associate show producer, and who collectively are known as "the story department" — are responsible for distilling about 200 hours of raw footage into a cohesive and dramatic episode.
"We look at primary characters, maybe look at who is being eliminated that week, and craft an arc so that their elimination is either something the viewers are sad about or happy about," Bowe said.
Other secondary story lines are decided and, after an outline is drafted, the writers scrutinize the footage and choose "line by line how to best tell the story and craft it to a 41-minute episode with a beginning, middle and end," she said.
That makes them eligible for WGA representation and benefits they now lack, including health insurance, pensions, wage minimums, residuals and credits, Bowe and Sluke said.
CW, a merger of UPN (which now airs "America's Next Top Model") and WB, stood by a terse but optimistic statement it put out earlier.
"We expect these issues to be resolved in the near future, and the show remains on track for its Sept. 20 launch on the CW," the network said.
Ken Mok, the series' executive producer, said in a statement he has no ill will toward the workers' unionization efforts but called on the WGA to follow "the appropriate process" and allow the National Labor Relations Board to canvas employees on union membership.
Mok accused the WGA of "trying to pressure us" into accepting unionized writers without a federally supervised secret ballot election. He said he would be willing to negotiate with the guild if the NLRB deemed it the sole representative.
WGA, west President Patric M. Verrone dismissed the call for an NLRB vote as "the kind of delay tactic that the industry knows it can use. When the election finally takes place the show is done or the writers have moved on or been fired ... we win the election and have nobody to bargain on behalf of."
One person who has yet to weigh in publicly is "Top Model" creator and host Tyra Banks. She had no comment, her publicist said Wednesday.
How do others in the TV field view the dispute? One veteran writer-producer said he would be happy to welcome the "America's Next Top Model" crew into the union fold.
"Storytellers are storytellers," said Billy Riback ("Home Improvement," "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody"). "I promise you at some point they put pen to paper, or fingertips to keys."
The "Top Model" strikers have been joined on the picket line by writers from "Family Guy," "King of the Hill" and "The Simpsons" — all animated series, which gained WGA coverage only after a strike threat, Verrone said.
Those writers were among the most eager to show support but scribes from live-action dramas "The Shield" and "The Unit" were expected to picket this week, a WGA spokesman said.
Union efforts to organize reality writers began in 2004 as the booming genre displaced scripted fare. About 1,000 reality writers have signed "recognition cards" attesting they want union representation, the WGA's Verrone said.
"For a long time they (producers and networks) tried to keep the faEcade up that there was no writing in reality, that this was truly just putting a camera out there and recording and drama just happens," a myth that has fallen away, Verrone said.
"And now we have a business model in place where they employ people" without adequate pay or benefits, he said.
Other guilds have made inroads at reality productions, notably the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and its locals. The Motion Picture Editors Guild, IATSE's Local 700, organized editors at "America's Next Top Model" and other reality series.
But the effort to unionize the reality genre fed competition between IATSE and the WGA.
Last fall, IATSE President Tom Short voiced complaints to Daily Variety over WGA organizing efforts in reality TV, telling the trade paper: "We are not going to be the javelin catchers for the Writers Guild. We're going to throw a few at them."
A spokesman for IATSE said Wednesday the guild had no comment on the issue. A WGA spokesman also declined to comment.
Sluke and Bowe said their concern is getting back to work with what they regard as just compensation. Only about half the seventh season's shows were done when they went on strike, they said; they don't know if replacements have stepped in.
"We're all proud of our work on the show, all fans of it, and we're really concerned that the season will not be up to the standard it has been in the past because we're missing from the equation," Sluke said.