If you haven't heard, former Real Housewives of New York cast member Bethenny Frankel is leading the movement to unionize reality stars. Here's a good summary from Time Magazine.
I'm all for this, but it does make me think of the Screen Extras Guild strike of 1987. I'll explain here eventually.
I'm All For Reality Stars Protection
There are several good reasons for reality stars to unionize. (I feel weird about "reality stars" as the default term; just like with "porn stars" ANYBODY in the industry is called a "star.")
Traditionally, reality TV participants have been excluded from the protective umbrella of unions, facing long hours, minimal pay, and limited job security. Awful working conditions and the downright cruel manipulation of the performers are the rule and not the exception.
In The Wake Of The Recent Hollywood Strikes
Film and tv executives and production companies are never known for their generosity and fair treatment.
The writers strike got settled a month ago and the SAG-AFTRA actors strike just got settled today, which partially prompted me to write this article. One of the reasons that producers, networks and streaming services were willing to try outlasting the writers and actors was because almost all of them have more profitable reality programs to supply their stream of content.
Sure, Whoring For Fame Is Bad - But Still …
I don't like reality television myself. And I don't have a ton of respect for people that want to be famous just for its own sake without displaying much provable talent other than the willingness to debase themselves.
That said, these people entertain millions but they endure grueling schedules, long hours, and lack of adequate compensation, despite contributing to the success of the shows. The "Bethenny Frankel" clause gives reality networks to have a claim to a sizeable percentage of any and all businesses that she stars. Instances of manipulation, scripted scenarios, and deliberate editing to portray individuals in negative lights contribute to the dehumanization of reality stars.
I don't believe that politicians and athletes HAVE to deal with abusive behavior because they've chosen to be in the public eye. Similarly, even if reality stars have chosen a shallow path towards fame, they aren't fair game for any kind of treatment.
Can They Be Replaced
So, what's the first thing management does when workers go on strike? They look to see if the workers can be replaced.
Were top Hollywood screenwriters and movie stars able to be replaced during this year's earlier work stoppages? Not at all. Even if there had been a willing pool of scab workers as writers and onscreen talent, it wouldn't have worked. You would very much notice if you watched a continuing series written by the 1900th best writer in the industry instead of the 100th. Even more so, movie stars sell tickets. Even a fairly synthetic film enterprise like a Marvel movie would not draw even a 10th of the audience if it starred Joe Blow. Movie stars make multiple millions per film because that's what the market has determined.
Are reality stars replaceable? Very much so.
When The Extras Went On Strike
In 1987, movie extras went on strike. It's kind of a forgotten story. But think about it. The word "extra" was their job description, as in "extraneous." It's almost the definition of replaceable.
In the above-cited LA Times article, the walkout "caused nothing more than 'some minor, temporary disruptions' on some film and television sets, and producers 'hired replacements quickly and the productions remained on schedule.' "
This should serve as a cautionary tale for reality stars. Just think if producers will be able to find others to do the job just as effectively. I think we all suspect that the answer is yes.
By the way, the Screen Extra Guild disbanded in 1992.
I Wish Them Luck
Personally, I'm usually pro-union. Let's face it, the prosperity of the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s was largely created by a huge marginal tax rate and strong labor unions. Yes, this is the dream that we're really chasing when trying to "make America great again."
But when it comes to shedding tears for workers being taken advantage of, I feel like coal miners and Amazon workers are going to draw more of my concern. Worrying about would-be reality stars and social media influencers is not really the hill I want to die on or be one of the first 5000 charitable causes I would think of donating to.
I wish them well. But urge them not to overplay their hand.