Tensions between SAG and AFTRA boiled over once again last week, with SAG accusing AFTRA of poaching its jurisdiction over basic cable and AFTRA charging SAG with a takeover plot.
But their long-simmering jurisdictional dispute may well be rendered absurd in the digital era.
Paradoxically, while the two unions will have to present a united front next year when they address the future of the business during film and TV contract talks with producers, they remain fundamentally divided over issues first hashed out in 1948. That’s when AFTRA filed a series of complaints with the feds about SAG organizing TV shows shot on film.
The heart of today’s squabbling dates back to 1956, when AFTRA obtained jurisdiction over videotape from the networks, leading to accusations from SAG that AFTRA had done so in secret and conceded major contract points in the process.
Since then, the 120,000-member SAG has covered feature film and TV shows shot on film. AFTRA, with 70,000 members, covers mostly broadcast and TV shows shot on tape.
TV remains the biggest point of contention, but with digital ramping up, the old dividing lines are blurring, prompting the two guilds to duke it out in gray areas like basic cable, when shows are shot on digital.
SAG topper Doug Allen, in a 12-page letter in SAG Actor magazine, detailed how much less actors get paid on AFTRA shows and accused AFTRA of shilling for producers. He told SAG members who are also in AFTRA to ask for SAG contracts on cable shows.
A long string of leaders — including, most recently, Melissa Gilbert — have tried but failed to merge the unions, contending that a combined union would have more clout, operate more efficiently and become a more formidable force at the bargaining table.
But given past history, it’s difficult to imagine that even the most talented of actors could be up for that role.