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AFTRA Hits 70, Sees Open Road

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Shortly after being named national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in April, Roberta Reardon quoted Charles Darwin in an address to members: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." That Reardon would strike a note of adaptation rather than confrontation is telling, given that AFTRA has eight major contracts to negotiate with management in the next 18 months.

By contrast, its longtime negotiating partner, the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared to take a much harder line, strategizing with the Writers Guild of America as it prepares for talks on a new contract with television and movie producers. Further, those strategy sessions have not included AFTRA, one of several sore points that have arisen between the two performers' unions in past years.

Their potential divide will be demonstrated, at least geographically, in three weeks: While SAG huddles with the writers, who begin their talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers July 16 in Los Angeles, AFTRA will open its 70th-anniversary convention July 19 in Philadelphia, 2,400 miles away.

All the entertainment unions stand at a crucial juncture, because the world of new media -- such as the Web, cell phones, and MP3 players -- is as filled with ambiguity as it is with potential. Though the outcome of the talks between the WGA and the AMPTP will be a major bellwether, the impact of AFTRA's negotiations -- which cover things from sound recordings to video games -- could be more wide-ranging. Because it deals with so many media, Reardon said in her April address, AFTRA as an arts and media union is "the paradigm for the 21st century." However, it remains to be seen whether its more adaptable negotiating philosophy is one other unions will follow.

Calling the Strike

To understand where AFTRA is, one has to understand the commercials strike of 2000 and how its results are interpreted within various factions of the performers' unions. Though the strike, which ran from early May to late October, was a joint SAG-AFTRA venture, its punishments and rewards were distributed unevenly, according to industry officials interviewed for this article. In general, voiceover actors in New York -- a significant part of AFTRA's political base -- may have suffered more short-term damage because of missed work, while on-camera actors -- the heart of SAG -- may have reaped more long-term benefits. The most visible gains went to actors in cable TV commercials: Their 13-week residual payments went from a little over $1,000 to almost $2,500 by 2003.

"Horrifically unsuccessful" is how Holter Graham -- an actor, voiceover artist, and the newly elected president of the New York branch of AFTRA -- described the strike. "People look back at that and think, You just can't get that pissed off and strike."

"Strikes are the ultimate weapon," said Reardon, who added that the 2000 strike was good for galvanizing the unions and developing new leaders. "It may come to that if it has to come to that. But it ultimately doesn't do anyone a lot of good." During the strike, she said, some commercial producers got used to paying lower rates for nonunion talent. Combine that with lingering bitterness, and they weren't eager to work with union members for a while.

However, a longtime SAG member who played an active role in the strike and who requested anonymity here said it was good for performers: Between 2001 and 2005, they earned $202 million more than they would have if they had taken the advertisers' last best offer before the strike. (According to an April 2000 report in Variety, that offer included the elimination of pay-per-use residuals on the broadcast networks in favor of quarterly payments and a 60 percent increase in cable TV residuals. For their part, performers were pushing to bring the pay-per-use system to cable.)

"That's hooey," Graham countered. "The deal we got may have been more than the last deal that was on the table. But the money we lost and the enormous dent caused in the business the following years? No. We didn't come out any better than if we had just gone into that room and figured it out."

Fighting for Work

The fallout from the strike is only one point of contention. Others are the failed merger attempts between the two unions and AFTRA's recent move to bring 30 cable television shows under its jurisdiction. AFTRA has contended that, because the shows are shot digitally and not on film, either union can go after the work. Some in SAG have disagreed with that interpretation. The Disney Channel show That's So Raven, which is no longer on the air, was covered by a SAG contract. Its spinoff, Cory in the House, now comes under AFTRA's jurisdiction.

For its part, AFTRA contends that it is simply trying to get as much work as it possibly can under contract, because the entertainment world is rapidly changing and media platforms such as the Web are relying on nonunion talent. "Any two people can go into a Best Buy with the $1,500 or $2,000 they've scraped together and suddenly they're filmmakers," said John Connolly, executive director of Actors' Equity Association and former AFTRA president. Thus, he said, in a climate where the barriers to production and distribution are shrinking every day, it makes sense to cast as wide a net as possible.

Graham concurred with Connolly, citing the example of Comedy Central. Ten years ago, AFTRA offered the network a deal that, Graham said, "floating in a vacuum, was an appallingly low rate. But the people working that negotiation realized these people are starting something." Today, all the performing work on Comedy Central comes under an AFTRA contract. Reardon said AFTRA has forged a deal with TheOnion.com for programs that are five minutes or less. Performers get $500 per eight-hour day or $500 per program, whichever is higher. That is more than double the rate for comparable work covered in the network TV code.

Sink or Swim?

The rising-tide-lifts-all-boats strategy, however, does not sit well with everyone -- particularly some in L.A. "The only work that AFTRA will get for you will be under contracts that pay you less money," the SAG member said. "AFTRA, a so-called union, will be out undercutting your ability to [be paid fairly] in order to keep AFTRA alive."

Earlier this month, leaders of both unions met in L.A. to try to smooth out their differences, and more talks are expected, said Paul Christie, SAG's 2nd national vice president and president of the guild's New York branch. Though there has been vague talk of the two unions ending their 25-year negotiating partnership, Christie said that would happen "over my dead body."

In the meantime, AFTRA is content to look toward the future, signing more than 40 contracts for work in new media. Connolly said the unions also have to be aware there are many more colleges and universities training new performers every day, and the gap between union and nonunion talent could be narrowing. It is important, then, to think about getting more of them into a union, he said.

What won't work, he contended, is "to stand on the side of the road with your arms folded and tell the producers what to do. And when they [don't] do it, your only other tactic is to repeat yourself louder. You have to do the hard work of building power."

Editor's Note:

In the June 28 News Analysis, about tensions between the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild, it was incorrectly reported that some of the 30 cable shows that AFTRA has signed to contracts in the past few years originally fell under SAG's jurisdiction. In fact, none of those 30 shows had been signed to a SAG contract. It was also incorrectly reported that the Disney Channel show That's So Raven had been covered by SAG and is now covered by AFTRA. In fact, That's So Raven is no longer on the air, and its spin-off, Cory in the House, is now covered by AFTRA. Back Stage regrets the errors.

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