One morning in September, the 16 editors working on the reality show Shahs of Sunset picked up their belongings and left their office in downtown Los Angeles. They were going on strike.
Hollywood remains a stronghold of private sector unions but for much of its short history, reality television has been an exception. Initially, many reality show crew members were young and came from the documentary world, said Vanessa Holtgrewe of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
Now IATSE is pushing to bring more of the reality workforce into the union fold. “Reality crews don’t work any less hard,” Holtgrewe said. “They don’t get any less sick. They don’t have any less children than folks work on features and television shows. There’s no one visible separating line there for us.”
A week before walking off Shahs, Mark Bement, a veteran editor on the crew, contacted the rest of the team about unionizing the show. The editors liked the team from Ryan Seacrest Productions and generally felt well treated, Bement said, but they weren’t getting health care on the non-union show. Bement sensed that they would have some leverage, “We were falling behind schedule and we were approaching air dates,” he said.
All 16 editors on the show, most of whom were already union members signed cards giving the union permission to negotiate a contract for them. Then they waited. They got the text message to walk out after Bravo had announced airdates for the fourth season of Shahs, a “docu-soap” which follows the glamorous lives of wealthy Iranian-Americans in L.A.
After the crewpeople walked away from their editing bays, they went to the Editors Guild offices to await word from Ryan Seacrest Productions, Bravo, the cable network which airs Shahs, or its parent company NBCUniversal, or its parent company Comcast, which has a reputation among workers for being anti-union. They didn’t hear anything.
The next day they began a picket line across from their offices on Wilshire Boulevard. It continued for two and a half weeks in temperatures more than 90 degrees. Soon one of those big inflatable rats–“Scabby”– showed up, and supporters chimed in on Twitter and Facebook.
Bement, 53, had never been on a picket line before. “At first it was a little awkward, a little naked,” he said. He watched as people from the office went to meetings over at Bravo even as the guild didn’t hear any news about what would happen to his job. “As the strike wears on, you’re like, ‘Well, did we make a mistake with this?’
We live, it’s often said, in the golden age of television. Viewers have learned to lionize showrunners like Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan and The Wire’s David Simon. But reality television is arguably the defining entertainment of our time. For shows like Shahs, editors are essential talent; they have to squeeze minutes of precious drama out of hours of footage. It’s the editors who cut “reality” into compelling television.
Holtgrewe was the director of photography for The Biggest Loser, a hit weight-loss show on NBC when the crew unionized in 2010. Later she joined the union full time. The Biggest Loser is a network show with a large crew, but as the Shahs strike shows, organizing smaller cable shows has proven more difficult. One reason so many of them get made is that they’re inexpensive and keeping the crew non-union keeps production costs down. The Hollywood writers strike of 2007 helped catalyze the reality TV craze that continues today. (Crew members who belong to the union sometimes take jobs on non-union shows.)
Reality television lacks the prestige of scripted shows and this can lead to the editors’ skills going underappreciated, even by professionals. One anecdote from Bement underscored this idea: “Years ago, from time to time, a producer would come in the room and say, ‘You won’t believe this. This guy who cut CSI is available. He’s going to come over, try working on the show. He’s going to be great. He’s going to give us a really fresh perspective.’ The guy shows up, takes a look at the material. He realizes that there’s no script–often [editors like that] wouldn’t last a day.”
Editors on scripted shows may have to contend with 10 or 20 takes of a scene while reality editors must condense hours of footage into a sequence that lasts minutes onscreen. You might have “people eating dinner and then somebody says something that causes a ruckus that leads to a fight that that leads to a teary hug it out session,” Holtgrewe said. “That can take six to eight hours and you may have two to five cameras shooting that, running through the house.”
The striking editors didn’t hear anything from Bravo but the network announced that that season would no longer premiere on October 13. It was hard for those on strike to tell what the network was thinking; Bravo could have been trying to find non-union workers or considering cancelling the show. “It’s a fairly successful show for them,” Bement said. “To eat the cost, the income, the whole season sitting on a shelf somewhere, that’s a lot of money to spend to make a statement.” (Bravo, Comcast and Ryan Seacrest Productions declined to comment for this article.)
Two and a half weeks into the strike, Ryan Seacrest Productions said Bravo was taking over responsibility for the show and the crew members were fired. In a filing with the National Labor Relations Board, IATSE said the action violated the National Labor Relations Act and showed “anti-union animosity.” (IATSE later withdrew the filing.) “That was a tough day,” Bement said. There was a support rally at Rockefeller Center in New York, where NBC is based, but by then many of the editors had already found new jobs.
The existing landscape remains complicated and sticky. Seacrest himself is a member of the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) union. SAG-AFTRA supported the editors during their strike.
After the mass firing of Shahs editors, speculation continued on social media about the fate of the show. Two weeks after the editors lost their jobs, an attorney representing Ryan Seacrest Productions reached out to the union and they quickly settled on a deal.
Without comment from both sides its impossible to know what motivated the reconciliation. The company could have been looking for non-union replacements, a task made more difficult now that editors in different cities can connect on Facebook. Another possibility is that they aimed to send a message to other reality crewmembers contemplating a strike.
Total numbers for workforce unionization are hard to come by in the reality world but since the Shahs strike ended, other shows have unionized. They include Bama State Style and Sex Box. In the latter series, a couple goes into a box, has sex, and then discusses the experience with a panel. Working on the show may even test editors who are satisfied with their contracts.