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Is this SAG's swan song on prime-time TV?

December 16, 2008 |  6:03 pm

Could the Screen Actors Guild lose its grip on prime-time television?

SAG, whose leaders are pushing members for a strike authorization next month, still represents performers on 97% of scripted prime-time series, according to union officials. But that hold may have loosened a bit Tuesday, when two major studios threatened to put their upcoming scripted pilots under an existing contract with SAG's rival performers' union, American Federation of Radio & Television Artists.

Twentieth Century Fox Television -- which supplies 14 1/2 hours of prime-time network programming -- said in a statement that it's "considering shooting its spring pilots" under AFTRA. And Warner Bros. Television Group (which has 18 1/2 hours on the air) cited the "uncertainties created by a potential SAG strike" and said it was likewise "considering all of its options," including shooting shows under an AFTRA deal.

So what's it all mean? For starters, there's obviously saber-rattling here. The studio brass is getting increasingly chapped that the SAG leadership won't bend from its pro-strike stance. So the moguls decided to unload a cannonball or two over SAG's bow. It's probably not coincidental that they chose to do so the very day after union leaders endured an agonizing session with New York members that underscored SAG's internal divisions. Some members insisted on the resignations of SAG President Alan Rosenberg and his chief negotiator, Doug Allen.

A SAG spokeswoman noted that the number of network pilots is down sharply this year (from 114 in 2007 to 78 in 2008). "We estimate AFTRA's share of this pilot market is up around 10%, and we are not surprised given the circumstances that there has been a small increase in that number," she said. (SAG and AFTRA spokespersons also sparred over the issue of whether existing series could be switched from one union contract to another. But that possibility seems remote, as by all accounts it's exceedingly difficult to make such a change once a show is under a contract.)   

Already, a number of shows in development are under AFTRA contracts, including NBC's cop spoof "Off Duty" with Bradley Whitford, Fox's comedy "Sincerely Ted L. Nancy" and CW's teen drama "Light Years." "I think everything will push toward AFTRA," one top agent told me.

Whether SAG loses the battle over next year's pilots or not, however, it may have already lost the TV war. That's because of the wrenching changes that continue to rattle the industry. Traditionally, AFTRA has covered shows shot on video, while SAG has covered those on film; both unions claim jurisdiction over material shot digitally. While AFTRA was the dominant union in TV's early days, SAG made great inroads since the early 1980s, when producers began striving for a feature-like look on dramas such as "Hill Street Blues." The unions have periodically weighed a merger, although nothing has come of such overtures.

These days, producers can get many film-like effects by shooting digitally, so the technical divide is less of a creative issue than it used to be. That could mean a net loss in SAG's prestige.

More important, though, is the changing nature of prime-time itself, which is increasingly shifting away from scripted programming toward reality, game shows, live sports and talk -- the cheaper stuff, in other words. Saying that SAG still represents 97% of all scripted prime-time programming is somewhat less impressive when one recalls that scripted shows are not exactly on the ascendancy on broadcast TV. More than a third of NBC's lineup, for example, is unscripted, and that percentage should rise next season, when the 10 p.m. hour each weeknight will be devoted to Jay Leno's new show.

But here as elsewhere, if the SAG leadership is nervous, it isn't showing it. Alluding to the 97% figure of prime-time representation, the spokeswoman said: "We don't believe that this year's pilot season will significantly change that proportion."

-- Scott Collins

   

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