Guild's latest report adds fuel to AFTRA merger campaign

In an eye-popping statistic that is likely to add momentum to the push for a SAG-AFTRA merger, the Screen Actors Guild reported its TV earnings dropped 8.2% last year.

With the drop to $564.8 million in 2010, SAG’s TV earnings are now 24% below 2007 levels, the year before the guild engaged in a prolonged contract battle that spurred the majors to opt for AFTRA-covered contracts on most new scripted skeins. That trend has continued during the past three years even though SAG members voted in more moderate leaders who have moved toward merging with AFTRA.

The decline in TV coin was especially stark given the 5.7% rise in feature earnings for 2010 and 12.7% gain in commercials work for 2010.

The issue of split jurisdiction in primetime between SAG and AFTRA has long been contentious within SAG. Merger proponents see it as a way for actors to contribute to one pension and health plan, while dissidents have remained 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 by the leadership to weaken SAG to make way for a merger. The details of the merger plan are being hammered out by official SAG and AFTRA committees and the vote, which requires a 60% approval from members voting in each union, could take place by early next year.

“This is another example of how being divided has hurt performers,” said Ned Vaughn, SAG First National VP and a leader of the pro-merger Unite for Strength faction. “Thankfully, the members of both SAG and AFTRA have made it clear — they are ready to stop employers from dividing us. We are undoubtedly stronger in one union, and I’m confident we’re going to achieve it by merging in 2012.”

SAG appears to be continuing to be paying the price for its aggressive stance in 2008 and 2009 — led by then-prexy Alan Rosenberg and former national exec director Doug Allen — when AFTRA split off from joint negotiations and SAG insisted on a better deal than the other Hollywood unions. AFTRA then concluded 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.

Even with the political tenor at SAG having shifted under prexy Ken Howard and national exec director David White, it’s clear that the majors are still wary of doing new business with the guild in cases where they have the option to go with AFTRA.

The report on overall earnings for 2010, which began hitting member mailboxes in recent days, shows a 3.9% gain to $1.986 billion as the decline in TV earnings was offset by the rise in feature films to $588.8 million and hike in commercials to a record $817.9 million. (The figures are derived from contributions that employers make to the pension and health plans and don’t include many of the paychecks for top stars.)

“2010 earnings reflect a rebound in production levels from the downturn of 2008-2009,” wrote Ray Rodriguez, SAG’s national deputy exec director of contracts, in the magazine. “While television earnings are still down as a result of lost coverage, theaterical and commerical earnings both grew in 2010. The 2010 commericals earnings also highlight the gains our members received as a result of the successful 2010 commercials contract negotiations.”

SAG began reporting annual earnings to members as part of a 2008 national board directive. AFTRA, which doesn’t report earnings to members, had no comment Monday about the report.

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.

TV earnings for SAG also declined 8.6% in 2008 and 9.6% in 2009. TV earnings plunged in 2008 as series went dark due to the Writers Guild of America strike for the first few months of that year. The TV earnings decline played out against the backdrop of SAG’s elections with the moderates blaming the formerly powerful Membership First faction for its refusal to take the deal that was eventually ratified a year later.

SAG’s TV earnings have fallen well below earnings levels in 2005-07, when earnings totaled between $733 million and $745 million each year. The biggest decline has taken place in principal session work, which plunged 11.1% to $311.4 million and is now down 31% from 2007’s figure of $449 million.

TV residuals slid 1.9% to $228 million last year and background work plunged 21.8% to $25 million.

In feature film work, 2010 earnings for principal session work rose 4.2% to $330.2 million, while residuals increased 11.2% to $237.7 million and background work plunged 21% to $20.9 million.

Earnings under SAG’s vidgames contract slid 31% to $2.4 million. AFTRA covers most of the unionized voice work on vidgames.

The impact of the declining TV earnings for SAG thesps came into sharper focus a year ago when the SAG-industry health plan notified its 40,000 participants that it would cut benefits, hike premiums and tighten eligibility this year. The SAG plan — overseen jointly by reps of the guild and the industry congloms — said at that point that it was facing a $30 million deficit in 2010 with projections of a $50 million deficit this 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.

The new SAG/AFTRA master contract, ratified in January, included a hike in pension and health contributions from 15% to 16.5% — 9.75% for health and 6.75% for pension for SAG.

SAG has 120,000 members and AFTRA has 70,000, including broadcasters and musicians; about 45,000 thesps are dual members.

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