Ad time primes pact

Upfront eases path to commercials contract

HOLLYWOOD — The ad industry’s chief negotiator has declared that the bullish upfronts are a good omen for smooth negotiations with SAG and AFTRA on the commercials contract.

“The numbers from the upfronts are certainly a good sign,” said Ira Shepard in an interview with Daily Variety. “A good economy is in everyone’s interest because both sides would rather negotiate during good times rather than bad times.”

But while Madison Avenue pledged at least $9.2 billion to the six webs next season, Shepard stressed that the economy remains fragile. “We’re cautiously optimistic that this is a positive indication of an upturn,” he added. “The upfronts are only one factor of many that go into the purchase of advertising time. We’ll be watching everything else as negotiations approach.”

The better-than-expected upfronts came two months before the scheduled launch of negotiations and three years after the thesps staged the longest work stoppage in Hollywood history. The current three-year pact, negotiated after the six-month actors strike in 2000, expires Oct. 30.

Formal talks are tentatively slated to begin Sept. 3. SAG and AFTRA leaders have been holding “wages and working conditions” meetings in recent months with members to help hammer out their proposal.

Although no numbers have yet been released, combined SAG and AFTRA member earnings for 2002 totaled more than $700 million –significantly higher than figures from 2000 and 2001, years dented by the strike and a downturn in advertising.

SAG and AFTRA members will vote next month on a proposal to combine into an umbrella union with affiliates for actors, broadcasters and recording artists.

One issue that could emerge as a key proposal from thesps would be a hike in health and pension plan employer contributions in the upcoming agreement. The SAG and AFTRA health plans, which are jointly administered with the industry, have been forced to tighten eligibility and cut benefits due to soaring health care costs.

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