Panel Disrupted By Angry Reality Show Writers, Editors and Producers

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NEW YORK ( -- The six broadcast network entertainment chiefs weren’t the only ones who flew in from Los Angeles for the International Radio and Television Society breakfast this morning. About 20 reality writers, editors and producers showed up at the event as well, demanding that their case for better pay and health benefits be heard.

Anderson Cooper
Halfway through the Anderson Cooper-moderated panel, the doors to the Waldorf Astoria ballroom swung open and a cadre of Writers Guild of America members -- the majority of whom flew in from the Los Angeles-based West Coast chapter -- began papering tables with fliers decreeing their cause. One took to the stage, where she declined Mr. Cooper’s attempts to help her down, instead charging the entertainment heads to “go back to your offices and think about it, it’s the right thing to do.”

The panel, composed of CBS’s Nina Tassler, NBC’s Kevin Reilly, ABC’s Stephen McPherson, Fox’s Peter Liguori, UPN’s Dawn Ostroff and the WB’s David Janollari, appeared startled. A smattering of the 40-plus tables in the room booed the interruption.

The Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild appear to be everywhere lately, launching grass-roots publicity blitzes to air their worries about both product placement in reality TV as well as a laundry list of other issues.

Not Going Away
“We’re not going to go away until somebody’s ready to sit across the table and negotiate with us,” a WGA West spokeswoman said. “What they did today was on behalf of reality TV writers, but product integration has a much broader landscape that involves all of our members.”

The bright blue fliers said reality storytellers are treated as “second-class citizens” who often work 90-plus hours a week without proper pay or Writers Guild health and pension benefits given to writers who work on scripted programs.

The complaint is part of a separate, larger one WGA West has with the amount of product placement in reality TV programming, as well as scripted TV shows and films. The guild wants its members to be included in discussions about brand integration earlier on. It also wants better pay and benefits for the talent that works behind the scenes on product-heavy reality programming.

The entertainment chiefs appeared to tacitly agree that they would think about it and the intruders, apparently satisfied, left the ballroom.

The charismatic Mr. Cooper tried to recover, telling the panel he had reality TV on his list of topics to cover.

Keeps ad money at networks
“Product placement is something we’re all dealing with,” said Ms. Tassler, president-entertainment at CBS. “It’s a good way for advertisers to keep money at the networks.”

When Mr. Cooper asked about the ratings erosion in the genre, Ms. Tassler responded by saying CBS last week had its best “Survivor” numbers yet.

“You had your best ‘Survivor’ numbers last week?” asked an incredulous Mr. Cooper.

“Well, this season,” Ms. Tassler said. “The franchise has a lot of life in it. The whole genre has a lot of life in it.”

Mr. Cooper also asked about the flurry of additional distribution deals several networks have recently struck, either with DirecTV, Comcast Cable’s On Demand service and Apple’s iTunes.

“We felt in that [week-long] window the shows were worth the payment,” said Mr. McPherson of ABC's deal to offer episodes of hit shows on iTunes for $1.99 the day after they air. “That was the model and obviously Steven [Jobs, Apple's CEO] has revolutionized the music business” with iTunes.

“Most of these deals are trying to figure out how to monetize these things before they get into the marketplace and, like the music business, train the consumer that you can get it for free,” NBC’s Mr. Reilly said.

Mr. Cooper questioned whether the new distribution will take away viewers from the linear content. All the panelists adamantly denied this would be the case.

“Ultimately, these decisions increase the pie. They aren’t killing anything off,” said Fox’s Mr. Liguori, whose network, incidentally, is the only one of the Big Four that hasn’t made headlines in the past month for an on-demand deal. “You have videos helping the movie business and DVRs, VCRs and iPods helping the TV business.”

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