The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists feel that the major television news media and their affiliates are blacking out coverage of the unions' 18-week-old strike. And the strikers are letting the world know it, although the networks deny that any blackout exists.
Between 40-50 actors picketed CBS' "The Early Show" last Thursday, carrying placards picturing a lovely woman, her mouth covered by thick black tape emblazoned with the word "MEDIA" printed across it. Above and below her photo reads the complaint: "When you're on strike against the companies that control and subsidize the media, it's difficult to get the word out."
"We've been at CBS on two other occasions, but they've chosen not to put us on camera," Gerald Kline, SAG/New York's strike captain, told Back Stage. "There's been very little coverage, by either the national or local media."
SAG and AFTRA have begun registering their complaint nationwide. The movement actually began in Chicago, Kline noted, with the Windy City's unions originating and sharing with their NYC fellows the muted-woman placard idea.
In New York television, the only consistent strike coverage apparently has come from New York 1, the local 24-hour, all-news TV channel.
"New York 1 has given us some nice and rather long coverage, which they're capable of doing with their format," Kline said. "Jay Leno has also been good to us on various occasions, with humorous bits about the strike."
But Kline called regular network and station news "a part of show business" which must be sensitive to their advertisers. "We're not paying their bills," Kline said. "The advertisers are."
Lisa Scarola, SAG/NY's president, also referred to the problem of media strike coverage at a recent union commercial-strike information meeting.
"I told them, 'There's no freedom of the press when it comes to network TV,' " Scarola said Monday. " 'But there is definitely still freedom of expression, and you're demonstrating that on the picket lines.' "
William Daniels, SAG's national president, sees advertisers' influence also affecting the major newspapers. (See this week's Page 3 Daniels interview.) But Shelby Scott, AFTRA's national president and a veteran TV news anchor, was more understanding of television news' limited time in reporting events from around the globe.
"I kind of understand," Scott said of national TV news coverage. "When the telephone workers go on strike, it affects people right away. When commercial actors go on strike, most people don't understand how it works; and that's a media judgement call."
Scott said she had been interviewed widely on local radio news shows and National Public Radio, but not by the national networks. She added she wished the nationals would pay more attention to the SAG-AFTRA strike, but she feels they're more intent on covering the current presidential campaigns.
The Network Viewpoint
Back Stage called the three major TV news networks in New York, and their local affiliates, about the unions' complaint.
"There's most certainly not a blackout," said Sandy Genelius, a vice president in CBS News' communications department.
Genelius was told that CNN had been seen covering the strike, but none of the "big three" networks.
"CNN is different because they have news 24 hours a day," Genelius responded. "Our time is more limited. Therefore every day we have to make editorial judgements about what all is happening in the world, and how to cover it in a limited amount of time."
Barbara Levin, a spokesperson for NBC News, e-mailed the following statement: "NBC News covered the actors' strike story prominently in the first block of the 'Nightly News' broadcast on May 2, and will continue to do so as news events warrant." The actors' strike had begun a day earlier, on May 1.
Wayne Whalen, publicist for NBC4, the New York local affiliate, said the channel considered the commercials strike an economic story better suited for the peacock's cable channels such as CNBC or MSNBC.
ABC News' media communications department didn't return calls by press time, nor did its or CBS' local affiliates.
Death on the Line
Tragedy struck over the weekend when William Ray Embry, a 38-year-old actor, died after collapsing on a SAG-AFTRA picket line in Hollywood.
SAG's communications office in Los Angeles confirmed the death, reported by Variety on Monday.
According to union strike captains on the scene, Embry fell during a Sunset Boulevard demonstration against a Sony Playstation nonunion shoot. He gave a thumbs-up signal to his colleagues as paramedics put him in an ambulance, but died later that evening at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. No specific cause of death was reported.
Both union and industry negotiators prepare to return to talks on Sept. 13 in New York. SAG national prez Daniels confirmed that the unions will attempt to re-ignite bargaining with some "new proposals," although he wasn't specific.
Meanwhile, the industry negotiators seem to be holding the line on their proposals. The Association of National Advertisers' most recent website report on the strike concluded with the following paragraph:
The way to end the strike is for the union to return to the table in September, join with the industry in modernizing the 1950s-based contract to reflect the realities of the television industry in the year 2000. There is no industry in the world that can survive in the year 2000 on a contract designed to reflect industry practices of the 1950s. We will continue to send this message to the unions.
Not to be left out of the adult-dominated job action, 75 child actors Saturday picketed a Los Angeles McDonald's restaurant. The innocents let advertisers know what they thought of the industry's commercial contract proposals. Connor, seven years old and a vet of 26 national commercials, told The Hollywood Reporter, "They don't want us to have the right amount of money to go to college. They are so mean."