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Actors' Commercials Negotiations Deteriorate

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Though it gets less play than the stalled SAG TV/theatrical talks, SAG and AFTRA have been jointly negotiating for several weeks with the advertising industry over the commercials contract. That contract is SAG's second most important, economically, and represents hundreds of millions of dollars per year to SAG alone (I don't have the AFTRA figures). Now, after industry statements that the negotiations had been going reasonably well, the talks seem to have hit a snag, and the unions may seek a strike authorization vote from their members, reports The Wrap.

The report goes on to say that the unions have already written--and someone has leaked--a draft letter to be sent to the membership of both unions seeking a strike authorization. A separate report in Blog Stage adds that the letter would also include a separate set of pro-authorization talking points, also leaked. That report cautions that the leaks may be just a negotiating ploy. A statement from SAG and AFTRA described the leak as an "unauthorized distribution of . . . one of many contingency documents that we prepare in the course of any negotiations."

Nonetheless, I'm guessing the leaks are a trial balloon intended to pressure the Joint Policy Committee, or JPC, representing the advertisers and ad agencies. If the JPC doesn't move on the issues and if the union membership doesn't rebel at the idea of an authorization, then we may indeed see an authorization put to a vote of the members. (It's important to remember that an authorization does not automatically mean a strike, especially since the more strike-averse AFTRA is part of the mix, unlike with the SAG TV/theatrical negotiations, where the more strike-happy hardliners were unconstrained last year.)

So, will the JPC move on the issues in the absence of a strike authorization? Apparently, they often play hardball until a strike authorization vote is held, note the Hollywood Reporter. That seems especially likely today, since the JPC recognizes that SAG is now a fatigued and overextended union, thanks largely to the hardliners' stalling tactics last year and into January.

Those tactics have left SAG actors with virtually no studio theatrical work since June 30 of last year, no increase in minimum compensation levels for TV work (and the theatrical work that does exist), a dramatically diminished share of pilots, and a panoply of expired contracts in other areas. All of this, combined with the state of the economy, leaves SAG members more vulnerable and less likely to support a strike. (AFTRA actors are likewise vulnerable, if for no other reason than the fact that most of them are SAG members as well.) The result is less leverage at the bargaining table for the unions, and more for the JPC.

Speaking of issues, let's look at the major ones. The fundamental roadblocks are (1) new media and (2) the economy. New media, of course, had been the major stumbling block in the negotiations between SAG and the studios before being at least partially eclipsed by the issue of contract expiration date. Among other things, the current commercials contract apparently has no minimums in new media. The unions want to change that.

As for the economy, it's reared its ugly hydra-head in several ways. For one thing, the JPC has apparently yet to make an offer regarding wage increases. When they do, don't count on it to make the unions happy.

On another economic front, the recession has decreased the value of pension plan and individual retirement assets everywhere. In addition, economists worry now about deflation of prices generally, but one area that still features high prices is health care. In this environment of benefits-related anxiety, the JPC is apparently seeking rollbacks and caps on the companies' contributions to the unions' pension and health funds. The unions, not surprisingly, want an increase in those contributions.

(Side note: P&H rollbacks also feature in the campaign by some members of IATSE, the union that represents most crew members, to derail that union's proposed contract with the studios. Ballots are due back tomorrow, March 18--or perhaps have to be postmarked by then, I'm unclear--but either way, we'll soon know the fate of that agreement. It's expected to pass.)

Yet another significant issue is a proposal by the JPC to dramatically alter the way residuals are paid for national commercials--so-called Class A residuals. This comes in response to declining viewership of national ads due both to commercial-skipping by DVR users and to audience fragmentation, i.e., viewer migration away from network TV and towards cable TV, video games and the Internet.

The JPC says that its proposal is revenue neutral but simply changes allocations--in other words, that some union members would gain (those doing cable and Internet commercials), others would lose (those doing national broadcast network commercials), but as a whole they would receive the same amount of residuals in aggregate. (The same amount as what? As today? As under the union proposal? I don't have the details, because there's a news blackout.) The unions appear skeptical.

There's a multi-way struggle here, by the way, because actors (and other production expenses) are only one aspect of the advertising cost structure. The other, of course, is the cost to air the ads--i.e., the prices that the networks and other outlets charge. That means that the more the networks push to maintain ad prices in the face of declining viewership and a softening ad market (which results from the slackening demand for consumer products), the less money the advertisers can afford to spend on production. Thus, they put the squeeze on actors. In a struggle between networks and actors for piece of the advertisers' purse, guess who's likely to win.

So, theatrical production is stalled and likely to stay depressed even after (if?) the stalemate ends, scripted television is eroding, advertising is soft, and the Internet pays everyone (producers and talent alike) mere pennies on the dollar. What's a thesp to do? "Keep your day job" is too flip a response, but it sure isn't an easy time to be an actor.

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In other Hollywood labor news, Variety reports that SAG interim National Executive Director David White sent SAG members a message today stating that, although no new formal talks with the studios are set, union negotiators are working behind the scenes to achieve a deal. No word on what exactly that means,

Meanwhile, SAG president Alan Rosenberg's lawsuit against his own union slowly winds its way through the legal system. Rosenberg's lawyers filed some documents last week. I doubt they're significant, but don't know, because I haven't seen them. The lawsuit seems, at least for now, to be a mere sideshow, but even defeats at both the lower court and appellate level haven't deterred Rosenberg and his fellow plaintiffs (1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson and board members Diane Ladd and Kent McCord) from pursuing their now-moot claims.

In another development, the WGA is cutting 10% of its staff, Variety reports. The causes: (1) a recession-caused decline in value of the WGA's investment portfolio; (2) a reduction in dues-generating work for WGA members, due to last year's writers strike and no doubt exacerbated by the slow decline in scripted television; and (3) expenses incurred in the so-far unsuccessful attempts to organize reality TV and animation. The WGA had no comment, says Variety.

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