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Writers Guild kicks off 'American Idol Truth Tour'

July 16, 2008 |  3:50 pm

Idol_3 In its longstanding goal to extend union benefits to writers who work in the burgeoning reality TV sector, the Writers Guild of America, West, has had no shortage of tactics.

The union backed high-profile lawsuits against producers (which are pending), led a strike against the producers of "America's Next Top Model" (which failed) and later helped workers file complaints with the state alleging various wage and hour violations (many of which have been settled).

Guild leaders made securing union benefits for reality TV writers –- yes, "reality" TV has writers –- a central issue in their recent contract negotiations. Studios balked at the idea of including reality writers in the main contract, and the guild even faced pressure from some its own members to focus on other issues, notably how much they would be paid when their work is distributed over the Internet.

Now, the guild is pursuing a different tactic by focusing its attention on one of the biggest players in the reality TV business: Fremantle Media, producer of the mega-hit Fox show "American Idol."

On Wednesday, the union kicked off what it's calling the "American Idol Truth Tour," a targeted publicity campaign against Fremantle Media North America, a subsidiary of the London-based production company. About 50 reality TV writers and their supporters will travel to various cities where "American Idol" holds auditions to highlight the allegedly adverse conditions of writers and others who work in reality TV.

Nine workers from Fremantle filed complaints with a state agency this spring alleging that the company denied them meal breaks and overtime pay as required by state law. 

While Fremantle profits from "Idol" and other shows it produces, "the writers and other workers who make these shows successful do not," the WGA said in a statement.

A Fremantle spokesman declined to comment.

Clearly, the guild is singling out Fremantle because it is one of the largest and most successful reality TV producers in the business. Whether the latest effort yields fruit for the guild remains to be seen.

But don't count on the bad PR, however, to damp the show's popularity.

-- Richard Verrier