TV writers and actors get paid decent money, because they're unionized. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists's contract specifies fees for every type of TV appearance.
Reality TV stars are not "television and radio artists" and do not need to be paid union rates. Reality television shows can feature non-union performers without violating AFTRA agreements.
This is why reality TV dominates television: it's cheap to produce.
Yet actors unions were formed for a reason. Two factors exert downwards pressure on actors' wages. First, there are a large number of people willing and able to work as actors and a small number of employers. In situations like this, employers can use their buying or "monopsony" power to artifically depress wages.
Second, acting - like professional sports, or music - is a "winner take all" profession. A handful of actors with star power - the ability to attract thousands or millions or viewers - command huge earnings. The hope of becoming a star attracts a super-abundance of wannabe actors willing to work for little more than a chance to fulfil their dreams.
So I wouldn't want to see the existing actors unions busted.
No, I'm troubled by the exploitation of reality TV performers, particularly naive, vulnerable or unstable ones. Hoarders, which stars people with a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that makes it extraordinarily difficult for them to throw anything away, even things most of us would perceive immediately as "waste", is particularly disturbing.
The plotline of Hoarders is simple. The hoarder is at a crisis point, about to be evicted, for example, or lose custody of their children. A psychiatrist arrives, along with a clean-up crew, to sort out the mess. The hoarder is clearly distressed, but the clean-up must happen, and it does. Hoarders gives the viewer a narrative of transformation: from chaos to order, from sickness to health.
Someone who believes that the world works as described in Econ 1000 - perfectly informed rational individuals, neither buyers nor sellers have market power - would see nothing wrong with Hoarders. People's choice to participate reveals that they are better off as a result of being on the show. There is no need for government intervention, or regulation.
It is hard to believe that the people shown in Hoarders are perfectly informed rational individuals. Indeed, the fact that people are willing to accept the offer "Shame yourself on national television in exchange for a clean-up crew and a couple of days of therapy" is a damning indictment of the state of mental health care. If you believe you're watching some kind of cure, people's problems being solved, you're kidding yourself. The clean-up and therapy is often little more than a short-term bandaid solution - end-of-season follow-up shows reveal that a number of the hoarders just go right back to accumulating stuff.
The risk for harm is intensified by the fact that there is nothing to stop recruiters from lying to would-be contestants. The notorious Superstar USA told contestants that they would be participating in an American Idol type contest, but week after week promoted the worst singers. The coaching and styling the contestants received was designed to bring out the worst, not the best, in their voices. Would they have signed up if they had known that the intention was to mock the contestants on national television? I doubt it.
But what about somewhat tamer reality TV shows, "Say yes to the dress" or "What not to wear." Anyone who has appeared on television knows the viewer sees what the director wishes them to see. You might be a good person. But if you let a reality TV crew into your home for a week, they can string together every moment during that week when you were less than perfect and portray you as an out-of-control, abusive monster. If reality TV performers do not realize the risks that they are taking - and it is hard to realize how badly you can be stung until it happens to you - they will agree to take part in shows that harm their personal reputations.
It is hard to know how often, or how deeply, reality TV contestants are harmed by their on-screen performances. Yet this summer saw suicides of two people involved in reality TV shows: Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, and Wade Belak, who was participating in Battle of the Blades. No connection has been made between Belak's suicide and his Battle of the Blades performance, but on air he can be heard saying that the contest reminded him of being at a high school dance. I can imagine that pushing someone over the edge.
O.k., so some people involved in reality TV shows go off the rails. So what? Lots of paid actors have troubles, as do people in all walks of life. Economics cannot solve the problems of the world (yet). But it does have something to say about reality TV.
First, participants should be fully informed about the risks and rewards involved. This would eliminate Superstar USA type shows, that deliberately deceive contestants. I would even endorse the licensing of reality TV participants: a minimum level of training and demonstrated awareness of the risks involved before filming begins.
Second, children should be given additional protection against exploitation, over and above that provided by requirements for parental consent. I'm not thinking here of Toddlers and Tiaras, but rather of the British show "Seven up" (and it's follow-ups, 14 up, 21 up, and so on). This show interviewed children at seven, fourteen, and so on, with an avowedly scientific aim of showing how childhood environment influenced adult development.
As it turns out, nothing would influence these children's lives as much as being part of the Up series. One of the participants, John Brisby is now a successful barrister (lawyer) - but his career prospects will be forever tainted by the fact that millions of people have seen a higly unflattering portrait of his 7- and 14- year old self.
(As an aside, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Up series has been the gradual shift in power from interviewer to interviewee. In the early episodes, the children had little choice but to play the roles assigned to them. Now that millions of viewers are waiting to hear the latest on Neil, Suzy, Bruce, Paul and so on, they hold the balance of power: "interview me on my terms, or not at all.")
Finally, I would favour requiring producers to provide reality TV show performers with a basic, minimum level of monetary compensation.
The TV show Braniacs featured an experiment a while ago. They offered people on the street a toilet brush worth £2 saying "try this new product" - people accepted the gift. Then they offered people a £2 coin saying "try our new product." People refused and walked away.
Paying people for their performances would make reality TV participants realize that what are doing is work, something worth getting paid for - which would make them approach their assignments with a more cynical and realistic gaze. Even if they decided, in the end, to risk everthing in the hope of 15 minutes of fame, they would at least have some monetary compensation for their troubles.
Yet perhaps the strongest argument for paying reality TV performers is straight out of ECON 1000: if reality TV was more expensive to produce, there might be a bit less of it around.