Thesps' cable blurb wages at heart of protest

A group of vocal opponents to the Screen Actors Guild’s proposed commercials contract picketed the union headquarters Friday, attacking the new pact for failing to include any significant payments gains for performers on cable spots.

But guild officials defend the new contract as making serious inroads on cable commercials, as well as setting the stage for gains in future negotiations.

The protest comes as members of SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists consider whether to approve the three-year pact, which would be retroactive to April 1.

More than 70 picketers marched and waved placards in front of SAG and AFTRA headquarters, hanging a dummy by a cable cord with the motto: “Cable is strangling us.”

“We were told that they would deal with this for 10 years,” said Allen Lulu, a commercial performer. “But our contract is still not in parity with cable’s growth.”

Rather that “pay for play” each time a commercial runs, on cable there is a cap after which actors get no additional payment each time that a spot runs on a cable network in a 13-week cycle. Opponents of the new contract say that this hurts thespians because they are “overexposed,” meaning that they will be turned down for future work because they have been on the air too much.

“Overexposure exists when your face runs ad infinitum,” Lulu said. “If you have a good year, that then spills over into a bad year.”

Some thesps say it has been harder and harder for them to make a living at it. Robin Nance said she made 12 national commercials in one year “but I make no money.”

“My work runs mostly on cable, but I am getting $600 every three months,” she said. “My rent is more than that every month.”

They say that the gains in the cable area are insignificant when compared to the number of times that their spots will run on a cabler, and to the dramatic growth in cable since the 1980s. Says Michael P. Byrne, among the leaders of a group called the Performers Alliance: “It seems to me that something is not getting through to (SAG officials),” he said. “They are not hearing the message. Everybody is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to the cable pie.”

SAG and AFTRA jointly negotiated their contract for commercial work, which represents one of the largest shares of earnings for thesp members. The joint boards endorsed the pact in a 98-38 vote, but western reps voted against it, 37-36.

In all areas, Hollywood’s guild and unions have for years sought substantial increases in cable payments that would bring them in parity with the broadcast networks. But the main argument among producers has been that cable — despite its growing penetration — still does not have the same reach as the webs. And it continues to be difficult to measure how many people are watching.

Nevertheless, SAG officials say that they did manage to score significant gains in the area this year. By raising the caps, they secured a 45% average increase in cable use payments. The contract also includes an 8% increase in session fees, an extension in jurisdiction for extras and a 20% increase in use payments for performers on Spanish-language networks, among other changes.

“We began the negotiation very aware of the problems that on-camera performers were facing with overexposure, and the negotiating committee and our negotiators made every attempt to address that problem as effectively as we could,” said SAG president Richard Masur. “We did not ever believe that we had solved the problem of overexposure … However, the committee felt, and I agree, that we made a significant step toward an eventual goal of having cable payments equitably compensate our members.”

Opponents of the contract point out that members were willing to go on strike: About 93% approved such a move should it be needed. But backers of the pact note that the vote was taken in late March, when ad agencies had a number of onerous proposals on the table, all of which were pointed out in strike ballots. Among them, they note, was a major cut in payments for all commercials running four weeks or less.

By the time negotiators on both sides came to terms, “it was a totally different picture,” Masur said.

“On the judgment of the committee, we put together an extremely good contract,” Masur said. A rejection of the contract would send negotiators back to the bargaining table, but backers of the pact say they can’t expect to get any more gains should the contract be rejected.

More protests were being planned for this week. The contract ballots are due by June 24.

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