* This blog is dedicated to the bich (oh yes, I KNOW I spelled it wrong!), moderators at TWOP. Without Strenga et AL, I'd be happily posting-away along with the best of them. Unfortunately, TWOP is a little too heavy-handed, high-falootin' and downright unfriendly.
*(added 2011)-Amended to mean Strega's Real Housewives forum(s) and of course those Bravo Blogs that eat your comments w/o posting them. I still visit TWOP for the best snark.

*(Added April 30th, it has come to my attention that some of the rumors posted on this blog are definitely FALSE. Most rumors are clearly labeled as such, but in case I missed any, please keep that in mind)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Are The Real Housewives Union-Busters? Kathy Hilton's Unclaimed Union Funds

*This is a long entry for Labor Day Weekend. The main topic here is the question of Reality Television and the Labor Unions and Artist's guilds that work with the television industry. Although I don't have any specific details connecting The Real Housewives franchise to any particular unions, I did come-across a lot of information, and a little bonus of some unclaimed SAG $$ for Kathy Hilton. I also posted my own ideas about The Housewives contributions to the productions. It remains to be seen if the rewards of fame and infamy, are worth the investment.

I commented in a discussion about Russell Armstrong's financial predicament on Lady Brook's blog, (here "At What Price Fame?") , because she took-notice of a statement made by Armstrong's lawyer about the financial-pressure involved in "bankrolling" a Housewife's career. Brooks as well as myself considered other Real Housewife Husbands who apparently made the same type-of, "investment", in their wives. In Russel's case, all-signs point-to some fancy-footed arbitrage and embezzlement, where investments in his medical-records company funds were used to finance the appearance of a lifestyle that would make Taylor whatever her name is, a candidate for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In essence, the "props"-that Russell financed, Cars, Clothes, the rented home, the plastic-surgery, maintenance... were an investment in a "brand", instead-of a television production or "entertainment". He made the final-installment on Taylor's brand-name, with his life. Too bad she has so many different names, and all of them are mud.

Russell Armstrong's suicide was something that we didn't see coming, but in retrospect it is crystal-clear.
Jill Zarin articulated the emotional impact of the pressure of  The Real Housewives of New York, in Season 3 when she said, "What do you want me to do-jump-out the window?". Jill may not have been suicidal herself, but she verbalized the intense hatred and bad-will that was being directed her way courtesy-of reality television
Risk to one's reputation, is part of the bargain a person makes when they become a Bravolebrity.  We call them "fame-whores", when they put themselves and their families in the public-eye and flaunt their interpretation of "reality". But the comparison to street-walkers, can also be made with the employment conditions that they are willing to accept. They're on-the-street when it comes to pension and retirement, health-insurance, representation for decent working conditions and the other security that unions provide.

Andy "Mac Daddy" Cohen
A major sticking-point of the Television Writer's Strike of 2008 was Reality Television. The strike ended without the issue being solved, but there has been progress since then, mostly on a show-by-show, production company by production company basis. ALL of the major show-biz unions and guilds including The WGA [West and East], DGA, SAG, and AFTRA, have demonstrated an eagerness to work with individuals and groups who wish to organize their productions. It is a little messy and more complicated-than standard scripted-shows, but all of the unions linked here have been able to accept reality show workers. The Writers Guild of America    (--link) has a great reference-page and documentation for reality shows where they list shows that have a union contract.:(copied from the Writers Guild page linked above)
Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
The Dog Whisperer
The new Match Game

Star Search
The Weakest Link
Hollywood Squares
The Singing Bee
Tic Tac Dough
Sale of the Century
Let’s Make A Deal
Million Dollar Password
1 vs 100

Here is another list of productions that have union representation for editors and post-production staff from http://www.realityeditors.com/
America's Next Top Model
American Gladiators
Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? 
Big Brother
Dancing with the Stars
Deal or No Deal
Project: Runway
World Poker Tour
Somehow game-shows, competition, and reality television all get lumped-together, and it is not only the cast members who deserve and need union protection. There are writers for example who work on The Real Housewives, who also deserve decent working conditions, but due to the concept of "reality", they are given other titles.
But for the purpose of this post I'll focus-on the cast-members. The line is blurry between what is "real", and what they want us to see-which adds to the confusion, but for a moment,  let's just consider them as performers, or actors.
Which is impossible, because there are no actors who "put-out" so much of their own resources that a Real Housewife is expected to provide;
  • the location and sets for the production (their homes and general environment)
  • wardrobe
  • the script ("drama" and dialogue)
  • content
  • internet content rights
  • internet content such-as Bravo Blogs
Some of them probably got smart and negotiated stipends or allowances for wardrobe and other things into their individual contracts. And I think that professional hair and makeup service when taping plus a lifetime supply of fake eyelashes are one of the free "perks" that a Bravo Real Housewife can depend-on. But there are not many of the current Bravoleb-Housewives who have the means to donate all of these services, let-alone refuse the compensation or financial rewards and lifetime worth of residual payments for the final product/work that they are giving-away by not joining-forces with a union.
We know that a lot of them get perks from merchants who want the free advertising, (although there are legal limitations involved such-as when Rush Limbaugh and others gave such "free advertising"). But Bravo is getting multi-million dollar "sets", for free when they tape in the Housewive's homes. All on the backs of the cast.
Here is an example of set/location prices that is posted on the CalState website:http://www.csun.edu/licensing/prices/?lid=8

Filming Prices

       Per 14 Hour Day     Hourly Rates (Minimum 4 Hours)  
Feature Film:
Strike & Preparation:
Strike & Preparation:
Strike & Preparation:
Still Shots:
Strike & Preparation:

Using a location for taping scenes, normally incurs costs. The Real Housewives are offering their homes as free "sets", and locations, and also procuring their own "costumes". No wonder the cost to get Reality TV on-the-air is so much lower-than scripted television.
Union-wages are blamed for the disparity, but many union-rules which are for member's protection, forbid employees from having to furnish their own sets and costumes.
While researching this topic, of course it occurred to me  that Kim and Kyle Richards and probably a few other of the Real Housewives, must be union members. Kyle, and Kim have extensive experience working on union productions and they most-likely receive residuals today for work done decades ago. There are ways to "work-around" the union-rules, and being labeled a "producer" of a project is one.
I searched the Richards name in the SAG database of unclaimed funds, and surprisingly I found that Kathy Richards has some money waiting for her there. (link)
Here is an interesting discussion about "Global Rule Number One" , where the question about a union actor working on a non-union production is asked.
I'm never going to let Bravo off-the-hook for the emotional risks that they allow their cast-members to take, and there will probably never be a shortage of people willing to take those risks. But the financial risks that our Housewives are taking upon themselves and their families are plainly and devastatingly leading these families into future losses that could be prevented with some reasonable actions.

The Real Housewives are currently the most obvious here, but even shows that provide everything except the "drama", are taking something from their non-union "reality" performers when they don't offer them everything that a standard union-actor would expect. Perpetual residual payments are generated to future beneficiaries  who haven't even been born yet, and I bet there are a lot of elderly retired actors and actresses who are grateful for those union-checks and health and pension benefits.

Bethenny Frankel stands-out as an example of  hitting-the-lottery with the exposure gained through Bravo. But Bethenny is a business-woman first, using Bravo to attain her professional goals. Teresa Giudice could also be considered a Bravo "success story", but at the same time the exposure has put her husband's questionable dealings under the microscope, and made it impossible to hide or ignore. The Bellinos , the Armstrongs, and those dreadful people from DC who don't want to be called, "party-crashers", have all discovered that living in a glass-house just makes them an easier target for the (alleged and otherwise) victims of their scams to throw rocks and deliver subpenas. 

I don't really know how many of our Housewives cast-members have union cards.But I do know that for many of them, such as Ashley Holmes, and others, Reality Television is their main occupation. When the majority of a person's income is derived from Reality Television, clearly, they are performers. The Unions and Artist guilds have proven that they are willing to make accommodations for the grey-areas of Reality and other new media even including video-games and internet content.  If there ever was a time to hammer-out the details and examine the numbers to include the majority of Reality performers as members, that time is now.