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TV commercial actors feeling pinched as they pitch products

Many are earning less than they once did, an issue that looms as SAG-AFTRA negotiators begin bargaining on a new contract with advertising agencies.

February 11, 2013|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Tom Konkle, a veteran commercial actor, said he booked five commercials last year but made only one-eighth the income he earned on the same number of commercials three years ago.
Tom Konkle, a veteran commercial actor, said he booked five commercials… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

In a nearly 30-year television career, Frank Crim has appeared in more than 150 commercials, pitching Honda SUVs, Jack in the Box hamburgers, Allstate insurance, and Capital One credit cards.

The Oklahoma City native has played a plumber, a trash collector, a chef, a cab driver and a demon.

But lately Crim is having to book more jobs to make the same money he did a decade ago.

"I still don't make enough money to buy a house," said Crim, who makes about $60,000 a year and shares an apartment in the San Fernando Valley. "I'm not asking for the moon, just enough to make a livable wage."

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Even as the advertising industry rebounds in the wake of the Great Recession — commercial production reached a record level in Los Angeles last year — middle-class actors hired to pitch products for Ford or Budweiser are having a tougher time making ends meet.

They're being pinched by a variety of forces. Celebrities are taking spots once occupied by lesser-known actors. Lucrative network television residuals — the fees that actors get when their work is rerun — have eroded as advertisers shift spending to cable television shows like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" that pay lower rates.

Many actors feel overexposed and underpaid too when their TV commercials go viral on the Internet.

Those are among the issues confronting negotiators for SAG-AFTRA as they meet in New York this week to begin bargaining on a new three-year contract with advertising agencies. The current contract, which covers about $1 billion in annual earnings for commercial actors, expires March 31.

The negotiation is being closely watched: It is the first since the Screen Actors Guild merged a year ago with its smaller sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. SAG-AFTRA leaders face pressure to make good on their vow that a combined union would have more leverage in negotiations to extract improved pay and benefits for their more than 165,000 members, many of whom rely on commercial and voice-over jobs to supplement income from television and film work.

About 50,000 people work under the commercials contract.

Representatives of SAG-AFTRA and a joint policy committee of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies and the Assn. of National Advertisers declined to comment on the upcoming talks, which begin Thursday.

But the negotiations could be contentious. In 2000 actors staged a six-month strike, mainly over how they were to be paid for commercials shown on network and cable television.

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SAG at that time was dominated by a hard-line group. SAG-AFTRA Co-President Roberta Reardon, who is chairing the negotiating committee, and chief negotiator David White, the union's executive director, are known as moderates who eschew outward confrontations with employers.

That was evident last week when the union sounded a conciliatory tone after the board approved a package of bargaining proposals.

"While there are difficult issues to negotiate ahead, we anticipate a productive dialogue with our bargaining partners and expect a result that is positive for our members," White said.

But the advertisers policy committee has warned members to prepare for a possible strike.

"Consider rescheduling production planned for March 31, 2013, through June 2013 to dates prior to March 31, 2013, to account for any possible impasse and strike," lead negotiator Doug Wood said in a memo in December. "This is of particular concern if you are planning production for the rollout of a new campaign or a planning a celebratory production."

Although SAG-AFTRA officials have declined to publicly discuss their package of proposals, sources close to the confidential negotiations said the union is seeking annual wage increases and higher pay for commercials shown on the Internet, as well as larger health and pension contributions. It's unclear how receptive advertisers will be to the demands, having agreed to $36 million in pay increases over three years in the previous contract negotiation in 2009.

But many veteran commercial actors fear being left behind as advertising migrates to new media.

Tom Konkle said he booked five commercials last year but made only one-eighth the income he earned on the same number of commercials three years ago. He attributes the decline mainly to the fact that there are fewer national network commercials as advertisers move their marketing money to cable TV shows and the Internet, where actors receive a fraction of the income.

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