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TV earnings drop at SAG

Guild losing its clout in primetime

In a sign that the Screen Actors Guild’s losing its clout in primetime, SAG’s TV earnings for this year are projected to have slid by about $175 million — or more than 20% — from 2007 levels.

The figure was disclosed at Sunday’s national membership meeting by SAG health plan CEO Bruce Dow. He indicated that the pension and health funds are projected to collect $26 million less in P&H contributions this year than they did three years ago.

A SAG rep declined comment.

SAG disclosed a year ago that its “covered” TV earnings had declined by more than $50 million to $684 million in 2008 in the wake of the writers strike. (The figure is derived from contributions that employers make to the pension and health plans and doesn’t include many of the paychecks for top stars.)

Since then, nearly all producers of pilots have opted to sign with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists due in part to concerns over concerns about the instability of SAG’s leadership.

Dow’s disclosure comes six weeks after SAG-industry health plan notified its 40,000 participants that it will be cutting benefits, hiking premiums and tightening eligibility next year.

The SAG plan — overseen jointly by reps of the guild and the industry congloms — said last month that it was facing a $30 million deficit this year with projections of a $50 million deficit next year due to three major factors: increased costs of complying with the new health care reform bill and other governmental regulations, the need to divert contributions from the Health Plan to the Pension Plan to improve its funding after the financial market collapse of 2008, and reduced employer contributions from SAG’s TV work.

Dow’s address Sunday included a pair of positive developments as he disclosed the SAG fund is 82% funded, placing it in the “green” zone of being adequately funded, and fund investments are up 10% this year.

The increased pressure on the health plan’s likely to have an impact on SAG’s negotiations on a new primetime feature. SAG and AFTRA are in their fifth week of bargaining with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers under a news blackout with no indication from the unions as to strategy and priorities.

For its part, the Directors Guild of America has emphasized bolstering pension and health will be a priority when the DGA starts its talks with the AMPTP in three weeks.

A year ago, Dow offered a similarly sobering view of the plan’s future at SAG’s annual membership meeting. He noted that employer contributions were down 10%-11% for the year and cited a variety of factors, including fewer movies, TV work shifting to AFTRA and a new provision in the ad contract that cuts so-called overscale contributions for top paid actors.

Employers pay a contribution equal to 15% (9.25% for health, 5.75% for pension) of an actor’s salary into the SAG plans. For AFTRA, the contribution is also 15% (9.75% for health, 5.25% for pension).

The issue of split jurisdiction in primetime between SAG and AFTRA has been a major issue within SAG. Merger proponents see it as a way for actors to contribute to one P&H plan. Dissidents, meanwhile, are frustrated by what they perceive to be SAG’s lack of effort to sign primetime shows shot on digital, asserting it’s part of a larger strategy to weaken SAG to make way for a merger.

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