SAG strike may not deal networks crippling blow
If an actors strike really does come to pass, don't worry. You won't have to do without "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "Saturday Night Live." Even certain scripted series, such as CW's "90210" and CBS' "Gary Unmarried," would be safe. And thank the gods in heaven that Fox's sitcom "Til Death" wouldn't suffer from a walkout.
Dark clouds of labor trouble are again circling Hollywood. But the environment for the TV industry looks considerably different than it did when the writers strike began a little more than a year ago, scuttling much of the networks' 2007-08 season. That's because a larger number of shows this time around simply wouldn't be affected.
Last week, the Screen Actors Guild, whose members have worked without a contract for months, announced it would push for a unionwide vote to authorize a strike. If that vote passes -- which many observers consider unlikely, given the current turmoil in the larger economy, but certainly not impossible -- an actors walkout could happen as early as mid-January. (Sources at the networks and the unions were happy to talk off the record, but no one would agree to be quoted by name discussing a sensitive labor situation.)
When the writers began striking last November, it didn't take long for the pain to spread, because few shows didn't depend on Writers Guild talent. Performers, moreover, felt squeamish about crossing picket lines, partly because they knew the other trade unions would soon be negotiating with the studios and networks over such contentious issues as residual payments for digital content. So the strike not only walloped dramas such as "Lost" and "24," it put the kibosh on "Daily Show," "The Late Show with David Letterman," "SNL" -- the list went on and on.
Since then, however, not only writers but directors, broadcast performers and "below-the-line" production workers have forged new deals with the studios. That's stranded the actors on a bit of an island, at least in terms of negotiating leverage.
Meanwhile, producers have pushed to get more series covered under a deal with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which has traditionally represented broadcasters and generally has a more harmonious relationship with the studios than SAG has had. Such series include ABC's midseason sitcom "Better Off Ted," with Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi, and Fox's space spoof "Boldly Going Nowhere," currently eyed for the fall. Current shows such as "Gary Unmarried," "Rules of Engagement," "90210" and, yes, "Til Death" are also covered by AFTRA. And of course, AFTRA already covers most unscripted series, such as "Survivor," "American Idol" and "Deal or No Deal," which were left unscathed by the writers strike and wouldn't be impacted this time around either.
If it seems like AFTRA's clout in prime time is growing, well, it is. And that's because of the way TV shows have traditionally been apportioned between the two performers unions: SAG covers filmed projects, AFTRA those on video. The unions have dual jurisdiction for material recorded digitally -- and that's where AFTRA is seeing a big upswing. In fact, the trend toward more AFTRA shows represents a return to the state of the industry prior to the 1980s, when expensive filmed shows such as "Hill Street Blues" began operating under SAG deals.
SAG still covers the big filmed shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." But even there, the networks might not suffer as much as they did during the writers strike. Many shows began production earlier than usual this past summer, so they have finished shooting a large number of episodes. One network source said some series have already completed photography on 15 to 17 episodes and would probably be close to having finished a full season order by the time any strike started.
None of this means the TV business would escape injury if an actors strike really does come to pass. On the contrary, production schedules for many filmed shows would be thrown into chaos once again and the industry would suffer further ill-timed disruptions at a moment of heightened economic vulnerability.
But the writers strike meant crumbling ratings and truncated seasons for many shows. Fox's "24" alone ended up with a delay that will amount to an 18-month interval by the time it returns in January. Compared with that kind of upheaval, viewers this time might hardly notice any difference.