Let me tell you about my exciting job in the glamorous world of TV production, reality TV production. One day to the next I work for E! True Hollywood Story, or the show I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant, or last summer America's Greatest Dog, honest. Work arrives at my door from E!, and Disney, and Paramount, and sometimes discs arrive with no label, just a scrawled file number.
The runners who bring over my work usually call when they're a half block from my house. I run out and down the stairs and wait under the palm tree grove that is the front yard of my apartment building, an oasis in East Hollywood half block up from Sunset Boulevard.
People say, wow, you're in Hollywood, you should be able to get a series developed about pedophile priests. But see I never meet anyone but the runners.
Like today, this red car came sputtering and smoking down the street to bring me tomorrow morning's work. Even in the endless racket of life here in East Hollywood from about 5 AM to midnight, you can hear the runner’s car approaching.
Rumble, it appears, and you see shimmering under the sunlight, six years' layer of dust hardened on the roof of his car. Or if it's night, the streetlight reflects off the corroded dirt like a special effect. So there’s a soft hazy light on the roof of the car, it gets crustier every week. People in L.A. become inured to grime after a while, it just starts to form a new coat on us.
My how my mind wanders.
The runner in this rickety car pulls up to the driveway and I hobble over. We switch product like the drug dealers up the street but much more openly. I hand the runner a stack of DVDs from previous days, she hands me a stack of new DVDs with labels that say E! Entertainment, or Paramount or DreamWorks or Disney Home Entertainment - I work for all those places. It sounds like a glamorous job.
No, it’s DVDs delivered to me by a runner in a claptrap steaming car that looks like it may fall apart any second. She’s a mom who supports four people with this little company and a couple others. (I don't know why she hasn’t taken advantage of Obama’s trade in your clunker and get $4500 credit for a new clean fuel burning car program. . . )
Okay, maybe if I weren’t sick and was working in the studios, the job would be glamorous? No. Because when Lizzie and I were homeless in 2005-6, I worked at Paramount AT the studio, on the Dr. Phil Show, same job I do now, transcriptionist. And on that job we were in the basement of the building across from the actual studio.
The basement, literally and metaphorically.
As in when Dr. Phil’s wife Robin took a camera crew through the offices for the first show in Season Three, and they toured all the clean new cubicles and the beautiful kitchen with more appliances than most people have at home, that tour of Dr. Phil's new remodeled office did not go through the basement.
Plus Lizzie and I were homeless, working homeless. At times at night I'd park the car in the neighborhood, near Melrose, tell my daughter to just stay down in the seat and sleep, and then went onto the Paramount lot to do my overnight shift on The Dr. Phil Show.
Down below the kitchen in the basement of that Paramount Studios Building were rooms where the transcribers worked, near the editors who worked with large Avid machines taking up most the space in their little rooms. A few lower echelon writers were in a windowless area to the side, the people who ran the Dr. Phil website had another office. Then a huge area was set aside for the transcriptionists. Beneath our feet was a rug that hadn't been cleaned since 1963, and sometimes we’d glance down at the bodies of dead cockroaches turning to dust in the carpet as we worked.
TV production is not glamorous, especially not reality TV. Because even the guys who were fortunate enough to work upstairs in the new clean offices had wretched conditions. And they were there from sunlight to late night seven days a week.
You see the epidemic of reality TV shows did not happen by accident. In the 1990s some real hostile anti-labor executives decided to find a new way to construct a TV show that did not use any union personnel. They created new jobs, such as mine - transcriptionist . They outsourced every job they could, in other words we work for one company but we are still independent contractors. And since work is so scarce these days, we're all grateful to scrabble for a few assignments to keep a roof over our heads.
I work independtly from home, because the people who are transcriptionists on staff for shows, with steady pay, get paid little more than minimum wage. Or, on many shows they replace us with interns whenever they can, college students who major in communications and come to town trying to break into Hollywood on their summer break.
College students will gladly sit at a computer in the basement of a building at Paramount and do my job - for free. Every summer they arrive and suck up a lot of the work. They get paid college credits to do my job, and I have lots of extra time on my hands to write, and earn nothing, every summer.
Funny, because as a contractor I get paid closer to what the work is worth, averaging $25 to $30 an hour, when there is work. You always have to plan, though, for these periods of drought, such as earlier in 2009 when there was no money being invested in production. The plug got pulled on a lot of shows, and films, until money started to trickle back in, as it appears to be doing now, this summer of Obama's first year in office.
Still it’s cheap to produce reality TV, so there will probably be a lot more of it to come.
People tell me I get paid more than some of the directors and camera crew. Nobody in reality TV gets paid very much.
They don't pay me a lot, so much as I've figured out a way to do the job very fast, and since I get paid by the page, I MAKE IT PAY $25 to $30 an hour.
I kinda like the little niche I've carved out here for myself in reality TV production. There might be seven (?) other people in the world who do this job professionally. The end result is I now after doing this job since 1998, I type at the speed of most people's speech, so I can get quotes down perfect and in print within seconds of the person speaking for stories I write.
You'll notice on reality TV there are no actors, because people all over the country will gladly spend hours and hours in grueling interviews on reality TV shows. Writers, who have some other job title to keep then non-union, then pull a few words from the interviews and use them the show.
They don't write a script.
Reality TV is known as "unscripted" in the industry, meaning no union writer written script.
The part of the 90 minute interview with an ordinary person that ends up being 30-40 seconds of broadcast time, is tiny bits, 4 second, even two second bits of funny words said by the reality TV star for a day.
The ordinary person from the midwest actually writes the script, and they are doing it for free. No need to use union actors.
Don't believe for a second all the words the ordinary person says come straight from the mouth of the midwest mom reality TV star for a day. Many times these people from everywhere are creative and their lines do work. There really are thousands of people around the country who have interesting things to say. For that I love the democratization of TV that is reality.
The real reality TV shows, like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, that go out and find people in the country and produce the episode around them - they really do use nothing but real people. The personalities who are regulars on the show are still non union - designers, interior decorators, carpenters, furniture builders - not actors. EMHE still manages to avoid union workers as much as possible.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a union advocate. I'm anti-union because today unions create this kind of backlash and the workers end up getting screwed. For example, the grocery stores in L.A. are all owned by one mega-corporation now, after the grocery strikes of a few years back caused the independent chains to monopolize. The workers did not end up any better off at all.
Same with unions in show business. They've resulted in hostile management creating reality TV that uses no unions at all.
You can't beat the guys with the money, you have to find a way around them.
There are the reality shows I work on that are structured in advance, but you're made to think they're spontaneous. I won’t name names. I can’t name names. I sign confidentialy agreements regularly. Security around reality TV shows in production is tighter than NASA when I worked there in the 1970s in Houston.
On the not really real reality shows I work on, often the person behind the camera tells the "ordinary person" being interviewed what to say. In fact, sometimes the person being interviewed is so vacuous, the interviewer has to feed them sound bites for the camera, phrase by phrase:
“And so you go into the diner.”
“And so you go into the diner.”
“No, I mean you go, say I go into the diner.”
“--… I, I went into the diner and-"
"Say it in the present tense. Say 'I go into the diner and there are Taneesha and KJ drooling over the donuts.'"
"Okay. I go into the kitchen and there's Taneesha and KJ and I said, you fools, they both be all sticky and -"
"No, say I go in and they are. In the present tense."
"Okay. They were drooling over the donuts."
"No, in the present tense."
I transcribe interviews on reality TV shows, that is the bulk of how I make my living. I’ve been doing this job since 1998, before there was this rash of reality TV shows, there was still work for transcribers - in news production, documentary films.
I actually segued into this work from a job I had in 1985.
Then I worked at 8555 Sunset Boulevard, a West Hollywood Sunset Strip address, as manager of Studio Typing Service, a storefront where writers dropped off hand written or messy typed pages of screenplays. We had ten or so Selectric typewriters in the back and a Giant Sized photocopy machine behind the counter by the cash register. We also did resumes.
So a continuing stream of interesting customers came in the door of Studio Typing on Sunset Strip. Writers working on scripts often lived in the surrounding blocks, so they’d show up after a three day nonstop writing session, hand us typed and mangled pages as disheveled as they were, with pencil and red ink lines and the story pages pieced together with Scotch tape.
I’d take in the script, tell them when to come back, and stick the wad of pages into a stack of incoming work. Then one typist after another in the back would finish a job, put it in the outgoing box, pick up a job from the incoming box, go back to the Selectric, and start typing. Two days later the writers would come back, read through the script, if they found errors, we’d retype the page, or use creative cutting and pasting where you really used a scissors and Elmers glue to actually cut and paste. Then the whole shebang we’d photocopy on our super duper brand new Kodak copier that also did collating and stapling.
The other part of the stream of interesting customers at Studio Typing on Sunset Strip were the actors who needed their resumes updated. Sometimes they had just arrived in Hollywood from some Midwest town, and we would show them how to put their resume together, with a headshot stapled in an exact way, when it was finished.
Near that address 8555 Sunset, a lot of the actors lived in the surrounding blocks, not beginning actors, ones who were on their way up, got regular acting jobs. They were at the point in their careers where they had agents, but not the big agencies who would take care of things like updating their resumes for them. So when they worked, they then brought their resumes to Studio Typing Service on Sunset Strip.
We would then add three critical lines to their resume - about an episode of a TV series or a commercial they just did, or that they finished another dance class or training. They’d bring their resume to Studio Typing Service on Sunset Strip and we’d produce for them in one day a new resume, 200 photocopies with their photo stapled like a professional on the back.
In 1988 I came up pregnant and in a state of post partum psychosis, picked up newborn Lizzie and flew to Humboldt County where it’s easier to get benefits and the rents are cheap. So I lived outside L.A. for fifteen years. During that time the PC was invented, then the internet. When I came home to L.A. the people who used to do typing for writers were now doing this new thing, transcribing for documentaries and news shows, putting it on word files and emailing them in, the 21st Century version of Studio Typing Service on Sunset Strip.
The story here at City of Angels 2 is held together by the one constant that has been in my life, Sunset Boulevard, the road that starts in the center of the city, where L.A. started, then winds west to the ocean, through hills that hint of continuing change and ancient life.
How do I explain this. When you walk in some areas of Los Angeles, you can feel the changing terrain. As you walk on grass here, especially with your shoes off, you feel the Earth moving. You sense how inconstant the geology is here and that in a century the ground where you're standing will have moved somewhere else.
You sense the ground beneath you IS always moving, and indeed L.A. is on top of a sort of smush of hot sludge. Miles below Los Angeles the continental shelves slush around in oil and melted irons, and the movement IS constant. The news only reports the large quakes, but the movement is constant.
In reality there are small quakes daily, L.A. is always moving, always in transition, always changing. After living here a few generations, you feel reckless and loose. You end up having to hold onto a constant that is actually constantly changing - like Sunset Boulevard.
The only real constant in my life is and has been Sunset Boulevard.
Somehow I’ve ended up living at one end or another of this strange street, as it winds from downtown to the Pacific. If you stand on almost any block along Sunset Boulevard, I have a story to tell from my life near that exact section of sidewalk.
Sunset Boulevard holds it all together.
And my glamorous job in the exciting world of reality TV production keeps a roof over my head.
I work from home. Most transcriptionists in reality TV work from home as subcontractors, otherwise the pay is too low. At least I think so. Since we all work at home and never see each other, it’s hard to know.