TV producers shun SAG

AFTRA has clearly become the deal of choice this pilot season, as producers shun SAG — which once dominated primetime.

With the season starting to wind down and move toward casting, a total of 62 pilots shot on digital have signed with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists thus far, according to the union’s internal tracking.

Conversely, insiders believe that only few pilots have inked deals with the Screen Actors Guild — even though minimum terms of primetime deals in the SAG and AFTRA master contracts don’t vary significantly.

SAG and AFTRA, which share jurisdiction on primetime shows shot in digital formats, had no comment Tuesday. But this pilot season appears to be a repeat of last year, when strike saber-rattling by SAG leaders sent nearly all of the studios and producers into the arms of AFTRA.

AFTRA has signed 23 ABC pilots, including “Mr. Sinshine” with Matthew Perry; “The Whole Truth,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer; and “No Ordinary Family,” starring Michael Chiklis. The union has also signed 14 at NBC, including “The Rockford Files” and “Prime Suspect”; a dozen at CBS, including “Hawaii Five-O” and Chuck Lorre’s “Mike and Molly”; and 10 at Fox, including Shawn Ryan’s “Ridealong.”

SAG appears to be paying the price for its aggressive stance during 2008 and 2009, when AFTRA split off from joint negotiations and SAG insisted on a better deal than the other Hollywood unions. That led to AFTRA concluding a deal a year before SAG in July 2008 — despite SAG’s fervent opposition to ratification on the grounds that the AFTRA deal fell short in new media compensation.

Studios and producers are able to choose between SAG and AFTRA jurisdiction now that most pilots are shot via high-definition video. SAG has exclusive jurisdiction over projects shot in film — but that medium is no longer common in TV production.

“We shoot all of our shows in HD,” one studio exec said — adding that their decision to shoot digitally has nothing to do with the guilds. (Instead, the flexibility is a beneficial byproduct of the shift from film to digital.)

SAG dominated pilot jursidiction until last year.

Producers have continued to opt for AFTRA deals — even though SAG members have voted in more moderate leaders who have moved toward mending fences with AFTRA.

Advocates of a SAG-AFTRA merger contend that the issue of split jurisdiction’s a potential headache for working members amid tightened qualifications for the joint industry-union health and pension plans. SAG earnings aren’t counted toward the AFTRA plans and vice-versa.

In a development that’s troubling for SAG members, thesps were told at the guild’s membership meeting on October that declines in TV work had led to producer contributions to SAG’s health and pension plans sliding between 10% and 11% for 2009.

SAG’s national board voted on Jan. 31 to seek a joint negotiation with AFTRA on a new primetime deal, a week after AFTRA’s strategy cabinet took the first step toward joint negotiations by voting to create a committee to explore that option.

SAG has about 120,000 members, and AFTRA has 70,000, with about 45,000 thesps holding dual membership. Both primetime deals expire in June, 2011. SAG is obligated to begin talks with the companies in October for seven weeks; AFTRA’s talks have not been set.

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