Can Bethenny Frankel’s ‘Reality Reckoning’ Actually Change the Industry? | Analysis

Since Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New York” star Bethenny Frankel called for reality stars to join striking writers and actors on the picket line, her “reality TV reckoning” has picked up support from SAG-AFTRA and prompted legal action, but some insiders are cynical how far Frankel’s efforts will go to substantially transform the industry.

“Like anything that is a movement, or a revolution, it takes a lot of different factors to come together, and I don’t know that this time, there are those factors happening,” unscripted producer Justin Hochberg, who has served as an EP on shows including “The Apprentice” and “Buying Beverly Hills,” told TheWrap, adding that the infrastructure for reality doesn’t exist in the same way that unions and guilds support the rest of the industry.

“It’s harder to start that [movement] for reality TV than it is for SAG-AFTRA to go on strike because they already have a union,” he continued. “We’re not even at a point where there’s a groundswell of people that are clamoring for a union.”

This isn’t the first time reality stars have thought about unionizing, but on July 21 of this year, Frankel offered up a 10-term proposal she dubbed the “10 commandments,” which included financial proposals to benefit reality talent, including a minimum fee of $5,000 per episode and 10% raises each time a star films subsequent seasons.

Attorney Mark Geragos, who is investigating NBCUniversal’s reality programs alongside Bryan Freedman, called Frankel’s terms “a reasonable first step” in a statement to TheWrap in August, noting that “studios, production companies and streaming platforms would be wise, much like SAG-AFTRA, to join in her efforts.”

“The present world of reality TV is frankly a TV system at its worst,” the statement continued. “The illegal exploitive practices of reality TV production while admittedly wildly profitable, come at the direct financial and emotional expense  of both production staff and talent. It’s abundantly clear to nearly everyone in the entertainment industry that the system needs a reboot and Bethenny is the perfect agent to lead that change.”

A representative for Bravo and Frankel didn’t respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

Some reality staffers aren’t convinced Frankel is the one to spearhead this movement, however. One longtime reality staffer told TheWrap that Frankel’s request “is only limited to the people who actually already get the most out of it,” and wouldn’t be applicable to green reality talent entering shows like “The Bachelor.”

Frankel would know about lower pay rates facing new reality TV entrants, as she revealed that she made $7,250 for her first season of reality TV on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” before later appearing on “RHONY.” To date, Frankel said she has “never made a single residual” despite generating “millions and millions of dollars in advertising and online impressions” for various networks.

Others question the economic feasibility of Frankel’s asks, including one veteran producer who has worked on reality shows across virtually every major cable network, who notes that reality leads on some long-running shows they work on are paid “a lot more money” than Frankel’s $5,000 minimum per episode.

“If you have a very successful show, I think all the things she’s asking for are probably very doable… if you’re the the lead or if it’s a family or two or three people,” the veteran producer told TheWrap. “[For] smaller productions and when you’re first starting out, it’s probably not super realistic… if it’s a big ensemble cast, that price point probably wouldn’t work per episode.”

Hochberg noted he would expect Frankel’s “reckoning” to have garnered a larger response should an industry staple like Heidi Klum, Andy Cohen, Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay been at the forefront of the movement, noting “you want somebody who is winning championships [and] Emmys on a show that that network needs and has a platform.”

While reality stars at the top of their industry like those mentioned likely won’t risk retaliation from their current employers by speaking out, Frankel, who isn’t actively employed by a major show, emerges as a distant representative for reality with credits smattered across unscripted programs.

Other “Real Housewives” alum have also spoken out about lacking compensation for their work, including “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Nene Leakes, who revealed in a July 27 interview that she and her other cast mates were paid $10,000 for the first season.

On the other hand, Shab Azma, a talent manager of 25 years and founder of Arc Collective, which represents a number of celebrity experts on Food Network or HGTV, noted that her clients are “very encouraged about the terms that have been laid out.” Her clients, who work on unscripted shows on mid-tier networks, would benefit from standardized pay rates proposed by Frankel.

“While they understand it’s an uphill battle and that we may not see every point agreed to, the issue around payment on shows post-exhibition period without additional pay is a very hot button for my clients and now with streamers having distribution rights as well, this is more relevant than ever,” Azma told TheWrap.

And those misconduct allegations?

Potential efforts to unionize build on a slew of misconduct lawsuits filed against studios, streamers and production companies — from a suit alleging “Love Island USA” producers of mistreatment to sexual misconduct accusations against “Below Deck” cast member Gary King — attorney Laurel Holmes said she’s “hopeful that this is a tipping point.”

“The combination of [the AMPTP] facing very public lawsuits, facing the union strike, having SAG-AFTRA come out behind the reality TV shows… that’s a lot of force pushing for change,” said Holmes, who works at Los Angeles-based firm Payton Employment Law that represents former “Love Is Blind” contestant Jeremy Hartwell in his lawsuit against Netflix, Kinetic Content, LLC and Delirium TV, LLC for an alleged “unsafe and inhumane set.”

In a letter addressed to NBCUniversal’s general counsel, Freedman and Geragos outlined allegations from former or current cast and crew members from unscripted shows demonstrating a “pattern and practice of grotesque and depraved mistreatment,” including attempts to manufacture mental instability by plying cast members with alcohol while depriving them of food and sleep, denying mental health treatment and covering up acts of sexual violence, among others.

One talent who appeared as a main cast member on a mid-tier Bravo show elaborated on their strained experience during production to TheWrap, recalling producers encouraging alcohol consumption and shaming cast members for taking time to decompress on camera.

“I think what happens is that they create an environment where it’s hard to trust anything, and you end up living in this kind of very paranoid world in a way, which for them makes even better television,” the former cast member told TheWrap. “They create opportunities for there to be more divisiveness, they’ll encourage it.”

The legal precedent facing reality TV

While a full out “reality TV reckoning” as Frankel called for might not exactly be in the cards, today’s cases have the potential to result in “industry-setting guidelines,” according to Holmes. While reality TV boomed in the late ’90s and early ’00s with shows like CBS’ “Survivor,” the industry has little legal precedent when compared to its scripted counterparts.

“There’s a huge power dynamic disparity there — the production entities and studios have taken the position that the labor code doesn’t apply to them and they’re going to act as if it doesn’t,” Holmes said. “They’re assuming that because there’s no union backing the individual that they’re casting, that there are no rules that apply. And that’s just not the case.”

As reality talent and staffers swap confidential settlements quietly made over lawsuits and public condemnations, studios are being held accountable by the suits and their reputation to clean up their act, according to Holmes and Payton. Freedman, as a part of his investigation with Geragos into NBCUniversal unscripted programs, singled out “unlawful” NDAs as preventing talent from coming forward with their misconduct claims, stating that the agreements “hide civil and criminal wrongs.”

Bravo — the home of shows like those in the “Real Housewives” and “Below Deck” franchises — has maintained that its talent can violate its NDAs in order to report misconduct.

“Confidentiality clauses are standard practice in reality programming to prevent disclosure of storylines prior to air. They are not intended to prevent disclosure by cast and crew of unlawful acts in the workplace, and they have not been enforced in that manner,” a spokesperson for Bravo said in a statement to TheWrap in late August.

“My hope is that [even] if there’s no unionization, then people are less worried about bringing lawsuits because someone has already done it,” Holmes said.

Payton Employment Law founder Chantal Payton added, “The more it costs employers, I think the more they’ll be incentivized to not violate.”

Lawrence Yee contributed to this report.

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