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After AFTRA

One actors union strikes a deal. Now comes the actors union -- SAG.

May 29, 2008

The tentative three-year deal that Hollywood studios struck Wednesday with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists came as welcome news to a region still recovering from a costly 100-day strike by film and TV writers. AFTRA has 77,000 members, most of whom are performers from cable networks, daytime TV, talk shows and a handful of prime-time series, so any work stoppage involving its members would have broad implications for Southern California. Any sense of relief may be short-lived, however, depending on how the other actors union -- the Screen Actors Guild, whose 122,000 members work in feature films and prime-time TV -- reacts when it sees the details of AFTRA's deal. And chances are that it won't be pleased.

That's because Wednesday's agreement, which still must be ratified by AFTRA's members, hews closely to the ones struck by Hollywood writers and directors. Although it increases the salaries and benefits for performers and requires higher residuals for reruns online, it leaves the residuals for DVD sales unchanged, exempts some lower-budget online productions from having to pay union wages and imposes no strictures on product placement. It also gives actors less control over the studios' use of film and TV clips online. That last concession, though it was hard for the union to make, is pragmatic, considering that rampant digital piracy makes it well-nigh impossible to prevent a show from being re-edited, reused and remixed online. If you can't stop clips from appearing, you're better off building a market that will pay for them. Yet the SAG leadership, conscious of how emotional many of the guild's members are about their veto power over clips, strongly opposes the studios on this issue.

Technically, negotiators have nearly five weeks before the SAG contract runs out June 30 and another strike becomes a nightmarish possibility. In reality, though, a chill is already descending on the industry. Producers have been reluctant to start projects that could be interrupted by a strike. Meanwhile, probably as a result of the writers strike, broadcast TV networks just endured a horrible month in the ratings as younger viewers shifted to cable networks or other forms of entertainment.

It's in everyone's interests for the studios and SAG to reach a deal without delay -- an argument for compromise by both sides, not capitulation by either. Although the studios enjoyed some short-term gains from the work stoppage caused by the writers strike, the ratings illustrate the long-term cost to everyone in the industry. Neither studios nor actors -- nor the tens of thousands of Southern Californians whose businesses support TV and film production -- can afford to push their viewers away again, because many won't come back.

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