In the summer of strikes and labor action, calls for reality TV personalities to form a union are gaining steam.
Bethenny Frankel unleashed a storm last month with her unvarnished criticism of Bravo and other unscripted-focused platforms for the way that unscripted stars are treated behind the scenes. Frankel was not shy about detailing what she described as commonplace abuses, including producers manipulating contestants for the cameras.
“We should just find out what reality shows are in production right now and say, ‘Just stop working. Say you’re not going to work unless they take down all the things you’ve done in the past and then we can negotiate for the future,’ “ Frankel told Variety last month.
Shab Azma has watched the debate unfold for the past few weeks with great interest. An experienced talent manager, Azma launched her own shingle, Arc Collective, in 2021 with a focus on representing nontraditional TV stars and media figures.
Unscripted series and lifestyle destination channels have proven to be enormously lucrative arenas for skilled artisans and other talent to develop new businesses. But it can also be field ripe for exploitation of people with no leverage and no understanding of how TV and media works. And that’s why Azma is speaking out about the need for the kind of basic union contract standards and safeguards that Frankel has loudly demanded.
“For years, as representatives, we have seen the lack of protection for unscripted talent. There just isn’t any protection at all, period,” Azma tells Variety. “It’s incredible that people are starting to get out there and be public about it, because for a long time unscripted talent have felt like the red-headed stepchildren. It’s long overdue.”
Moreover, Azma points to the growth of unscripted genres across all platforms and the leveling of the playing field in the streaming era. Where big scripted hits once routinely brought in far higher advertising sales and license fees from platforms, the biggest unscripted franchises now more than hold their own. But reality talent has long been seen as interchangeable, which is another problem.
“If the network’s making the same amount of money on a show whether it’s unscripted or scripted, I don’t see why the talent can’t be paid more,” she said.
“It’s been great to see networks really embrace such a broad range of talent,” Azma said, citing clients who are building media careers after establishing themselves as botanists, architects, doctors, restauranteurs and hospitality mavens. “It’s been wonderful to see this explosion of all kinds of content now across different platforms.”
Before launching Los Angeles-based Arc Collective, Azma was a partner at Flutie Entertainment. She also worked as a manager for the Firm and for Universal Consumer Products.
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.
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