New shows gravitating to SAG’s rival

As the Screen Actors Guild heads into the third month of its contract stalemate with the majors, there’s mounting evidence that the uncertainty about SAG’s future is helping rival union AFTRA make inroads in primetime.

Insiders at TV’s major studios say that in situations where the studio has the option to pick between the thesp unions, there has been a stronger inclination to do broadcast network pilots and series under an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists contract rather than with SAG. And there’s little wonder why: With the threat of a SAG strike still hanging over the biz, going with AFTRA is like taking out a strikeproof insurance policy.

SAG has exclusive jurisdiction over network primetime skeins shot on film; SAG and AFTRA have shared jurisdiction over pilots and series shot on video. With more and more series shot on digital vid, however, AFTRA has had more opportunities in the past few years to land network primetime series, particularly dramas.

Among the recent shows that have gone with AFTRA are the CW’s “90210″ and “Reaper”; CBS’ new sitcom “Gary Unmarried”; and two shows just picked up to series at ABC: comedy “Better Off Ted” and hourlong “The Unusuals.” ABC’s recently wrapped drama pilot “Prince of Motor City” is also AFTRA.

Sony Pictures TV, ABC Studios and CBS Paramount Network TV have been among the most active in steering new biz to AFTRA in the past few years. The decision about which union’s contract will govern thesps on a vid-shot show is made at the pilot stage, and by law a show cannot switch unions midstream unless the show’s production format shifts from vid to film or vice versa.

Stars, in some cases, have the clout to influence which union will rep a show. But until this year’s round of contract talks, there wasn’t much of an issue because the SAG and AFTRA contracts for broadcast network primetime series were virtually identical, so the default choice for scripted shows tended to be SAG.

For some time AFTRA has been favored by producers of basic and pay cable skeins because the union does offer more flexible terms in the cable realm. In SAG’s view, however, the terms are far worse for thesps.

Now, with AFTRA having ratified a three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in July despite vigorous opposition from SAG, some of the majors are leaning more toward AFTRA for broadcast network shows as protection against a possible SAG strike. If SAG called a strike, even a dual SAG-AFTRA member would be obligated to continue working if under contract to an AFTRA-covered show.

Beyond the short-term strike threat, studio brass say they’ve generally grown wary of SAG and its recent management turmoil and bitter factional fighting.

The real test of whether AFTRA will pick up significant market share in network primetime will come in the next few months, as television’s pilot season shifts into high gear. Biz insiders are watching to see how many pilots are designated AFTRA.

At the moment, going with AFTRA is slightly more costly for studios because AFTRA’s new pact includes residuals for paid downloads and Web streaming of programs, plus gains in minimum pay rates for various categories of series work. Until the contract standoff is resolved, projects shot under a SAG contract will adhere to the terms of the expired pact and not include new-media reuse residuals or bumps in minimums.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG’s deputy national exec director and general counsel, acknowledged that there’s been “some blips in terms of AFTRA covering pilots,” but he said the real question is how many of those pilots get on the air as series.

“SAG covers 95% of primetime network (shows),” Crabtree-Ireland told Daily Variety. “That’s not going to change because people are comfortable working with the SAG contract. …The other reason is that actors want to work on SAG contracts.”

Crabtree-Ireland maintained that studios have little genuine cause to fear going with SAG on new projects, even in the absence of a current contract, because so many of the basic issues that matter most to new series have already been hammered out.

“I believe the producers realize that most of the economic nuts and bolts of the deal have been worked out with the AMPTP, so they are not holding back out of fear of big surprises under the new deal,” Crabtree-Ireland said.

AFTRA execs also downplay the significance of the SAG turmoil in the uptick in the volume of network primetime shows going with AFTRA.

Joan Halpern Weise, AFTRA’s assistant national exec director, credited the changing landscape for AFTRA to the long-term trend of more shows shooting on high-def video and the strong relationships that the union has developed with top producers.

“As far as I can see, it’s really business as usual for us,” Weise said. “What we’ve seen is that there’s been a shift in (production) technology and the longstanding relationships that we have with these producers.”

Weise, a 27-year AFTRA vet, notes that there’s historically been an ebb and flow of scripted primetime series coverage for AFTRA (among the bigger hits done under AFTRA contracts were “Roseanne,” “Married … With Children” and “All in the Family”), which she likens to a “pendulum swing” between the two unions.

AFTRA has not done any special outreach to Hollywood’s creative community in response to the SAG situation, Weise said.

“They don’t need any education on our contract,” Weise said. “They know what our contract is.”

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