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Work is Drying Up for Staff in Reality TV

TL;DR intro

  • Reality TV Production:Reality TV production has slowed significantly, leading to widespread unemployment in the industry.
  • Development and Production:Development and production have not picked up despite initial expectations after the 2023 strikes.
  • Budgets for Greenlit Shows:Budgets for greenlit shows are being slashed, affecting salaries and job security for many workers.

Jobs are scarce, budgets are tight, and workers are contemplating leaving the unscripted television industry altogether. Despite initial hopes that the 2023 actors and writers strikes would boost reality TV, which thrived during the 2007-08 writers strike, the opposite has happened. Development and production have not picked up, leaving many workers in the lurch.

"I've worked in this industry for 20 years, and all of a sudden the faucet just turned off," says producer Patrick Caligiuri (Naked and Afraid, American Idol). Caligiuri has posted multiple times on TikTok about the struggles of entertainment workers, with his first post, "Reality TV is dead," gaining significant traction on LinkedIn.

"It's not just people who just moved to L.A. to get into the business that can't find jobs," adds another veteran reality TV producer. "It's somebody who's been working for 25 years and has a résumé that I would kill for who's saying they haven't worked in a year."

Many veteran unscripted producers and sellers say the downturn mirrors what's happening in the scripted TV space, with budgets being squeezed across the board. Unscripted shows, historically cheaper and faster to produce, are facing the same fiscal pressures. "It's the same problem as scripted, and it's really depressing," says one veteran reality executive.

The overall contraction and mergers and acquisitions have also reduced the number of buyers for unscripted content. For instance, Max no longer has its own unscripted department after integrating Discovery's programming into the streamer. "At the legacy companies, you have massive fiscal pressure going on — just look at the stock prices. Those are the traditional buyers. It's the same reasons you've seen in scripted, just leading to unscripted as well," says one longtime seller.

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Budget Cuts and Risk Aversion

Budgets for the shows that are being greenlit are getting slashed, affecting salaries offered to workers. Longtime reality producers have seen significant reductions in pay rates. For example, seasoned story producers who once made $2,800 a week now see job postings offering $1,750 to $2,250 a week. "Unfortunately, there's a lot more supply than demand right now," adds the veteran reality TV producer. As a result, "Everybody's Scrooge McDucking it."

Buyers are becoming increasingly risk-averse, sticking to established franchises and safe bets. "The big franchises are still being greenlit," says Banijay Americas CEO Ben Samek, citing shows like Deal or No Deal, MasterChef, and Lego Masters. Sports-related content, inspired by the success of Netflix's Formula 1: Drive to Survive, is also gaining traction. Game shows are another genre that continues to prosper due to their budget-friendly nature and repeatability.

For unscripted workers not attached to long-running franchises, 2024 has been brutal. One longtime editor had to sell a second home and is in the process of selling her L.A. residence. Another producer received financial help from her mother and applied for a job at Trader Joe's. Caligiuri has started freelance writing for a local news affiliate.

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Adapting to Survive

Production companies are getting creative to weather the nonfiction market slump. Critical Content, behind MTV's Catfish and Netflix's Sly, is focusing on branded partnerships and first-look deals in international territories. They are also developing a FAST channel for the truTV hit Storage Hunters. "How do we continue to feed that [unscripted sales] pipeline but also build other pipelines?" says president Jenny Daly.

Glass Entertainment Group has expanded into podcasting, sometimes developing that IP into unscripted shows. Their efforts have led to Hulu's Betrayal: The Perfect Husband. "If we believe in a story and there isn't a TV home for it, let's make a podcast," explains CEO and executive producer Nancy Glass.

Despite these efforts, the reality TV industry is struggling. "Our industry has just been kind of flatlined. It's on life support," says Caligiuri. Production was down 16.2% in the first quarter of the year compared to 2023, according to FilmLA. With productions leaving the state and companies slashing budgets, some crew members wonder if the industry they loved will ever recover.

California's noncompetitive stance with other states offering better tax incentives is also a concern. "California remains noncompetitive with the rest of the world," says FilmLA president Paul Audley. States like New York and Georgia offer more attractive incentives, drawing productions away from L.A.

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For many workers, the current conditions are taking a toll on their mental health. Diego Mariscal, a dolly grip with 25-plus years of experience, runs a popular Facebook group called Crew Stories, where industry professionals share their experiences and support each other. "Everyone's just in panic mode and they don't know what to do," Mariscal says. He has recently fielded multiple messages from crew members experiencing severe mental distress.

Despite the challenges, some remain hopeful. "I love what I do," says Keith Dunkerley, a director of photography and camera operator. "You definitely question what you do, you wake up [and] it's kind of like, 'What am I doing? What am I supposed to do now? What's going to happen?' And you just hope that something will pop up. I'm really hopeful. Fingers crossed."

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