Possible strike sends networks away from guild

The strike saber-rattling by the Screen Actors Guild is sending the studios into the arms of its rival, AFTRA, for pilot season.

The prospect of SAG going on strike by mid-January, just as primetime’s pilot season starts in earnest, is ensuring that more broadcast network pilots will be produced under AFTRA contracts than under SAG pacts next year, top studio brass confirm.

Meanwhile, at least one TV studio is frantically drawing up contingency plans for existing skeins should another work stoppage occur early next year.

“We’re looking now at staying in production through Christmas break, pushing vacations to the end of January,” said one studio chief. “That way we can get as many episodes in the can as possible.”

Nothing’s been set in stone so far, but some studios are likely to take steps to squeeze out as much material as possible before a possible work stoppage.

Over the long term, SAG’s aggressive stance in this round of contract negotiations seems likely to cost the guild significant market share among primetime skeins.

“If they’re about to go on strike in mid-January, why would we not do deals with AFTRA wherever possible?” said a senior business exec at a top TV shop. “The short-term mentality of (SAG’s) leadership is just staggering to us.”

AFTRA and SAG had no comment about the trend and, as of Tuesday afternoon, SAG hadn’t yet disclosed when it’s sending members its strike authorization. The vote will take at least three weeks to complete and require 75% approval by those voting.

Going with AFTRA is like a strike-proof insurance policy for nets and studios. Even if SAG goes on strike, thesps who are dual members of SAG and AFTRA would be legally obligated to work on shows produced under an AFTRA contract. AFTRA ratified a new three-year primetime pact in July after much drama and intra-union sniping with SAG.

Studio execs are also quick to point out that a SAG strike would come at a time when the TV biz is already reeling from the sharp downturn in advertising sales driven by the economic crisis. The cash flow crunch, coupled with the lingering impact of the Writers Guild of America’s 100-day strike, will surely put a dent in 2009 development budgets and reduce the overall number of pilots commissioned by the major nets this year.

“Everybody’s scrambling right now to figure out what ’09 (budgets) are going to look like,” the exec said.

SAG and AFTRA have shared jurisdiction over primetime series. The longstanding agreement has been that SAG reps all projects shot on film, while SAG and AFTRA have an equal shot at projects shot electronically, which used to translate to shows shot on video (multicamera sitcoms, soaps, daytime and latenight yakkers, etc.).

But with more and more primetime skeins now shot in high-definition digital formats, AFTRA’s electronic purview has greatly expanded. And in the past year, with the biz on SAG strike watch, a number of upcoming skeins have opted to go with AFTRA deals. The most recent examples are the upcoming Fox comedy “Boldly Going Nowhere,” the ABC laffer “Better Off Ted” and the ABC drama pilot “Prince of Motor City.”

AFTRA’s frosh shows this season include CBS sitcom “Gary Unmarried” and CW’s “90210.” It’s understood that if CW’s planned “Melrose Place” revival comes to pass, it will be an AFTRA show.

ABC Studios, 20th Century Fox TV and CBS Paramount Network TV have been among the most active in steering new projects to AFTRA. Once the union designation is made during the initial casting phase, a show cannot switch its affiliation unless its production format changes.

For nearly 30 years, Hollywood usually opted for SAG deals on scripted primetime fare. SAG and AFTRA pacts had been identical because the two unions had jointly negotiated the contract covering shows for broadcast TV since the early ’80s, but that solidarity ended this year amid recriminations on both sides.

Now, AFTRA’s primetime pact — ratified in July despite a feverish SAG campaign against it — includes more generous terms than SAG’s expired contract for thesps in key areas, and new-media residuals for the first time. Studio execs say their key concern is ensuring that production continues uninterrupted, not saving a few bucks on guest star minimums and new-media residuals.

On the cable front, AFTRA has made major inroads in covering scripted programs because the terms of its contract — which are separate from its broadcast primetime contract — differ significantly from SAG’s cable terms. If SAG goes on strike, the work stoppage would have little impact on cable production as compared with broadcast skeins.

AFTRA has been roundly criticized in the creative community for offering what some call “made to fit” terms to studios, yet network and studio execs continually insist that SAG’s terms make producing for basic cable, particularly the second- and third-tier channels, cost-prohibitive.

“Some of these shows would not exist if you couldn’t do them under AFTRA contracts,” said one TV studio topper.

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