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SAG Primetime Market Share Set to Fall Below 50% This Fall (Exclusive)

Newly-obtained figures show SAG’s decline, AFTRA’s rise, and other changes in the pilot process.

Screen Actors Guild SAG Logo (damaged) - P 2012

In a stomach-churning plunge more typical of a double black diamond ski run than a business graph, the Screen Actors Guild’s share of scripted primetime television fell from 93 percent in 2008 to about 50 percent in just three years, according to previously unreported data provided to The Hollywood Reporter by the guild.

That number will most likely drop to about 45 percent this fall, a THR review indicates, and AFTRA’s will rise to 55 percent, marking the first time in at least a decade – and perhaps far longer – that the smaller union will decisively control the scripted broadcast grid. Indeed, it wasn’t immediately possible to determine if AFTRA had ever commanded a solid majority of scripted time in the marquee daypart.

The data looks like this:

The focus on scripted programming undercounts AFTRA-covered work somewhat, because the union’s jurisdiction includes shows such as reality programming where hosts and some contestants are AFTRA positions. Unscripted programs currently amount to about a third of the approximately 87 primetime hours available. (That 87 hours is ABC, CBS and NBC at 7 days times 3 hours per night, Fox at 7 x 2 and The CW at 5 x 2.)

Unscripted work is most likely of smaller dollar value to AFTRA than its scripted work, due in part to the smaller number of covered shows and fewer union positions in each show, such as one host on an unscripted episode versus numerous actors on a scripted one. On the other hand, it represents an increase in the number of hours covered by the union, which can translate to leverage during contract negotiations.

The guild’s drop in market share is of grave concern to the SAG Pension & Health Plan, because the drop in earnings translates to a significant drop in employer contributions to the Plan. Those contributions are based on a percentage of covered earnings. It’s also of concern to SAG itself, since union dues are calculated as a fixed amount – currently $116 – plus a percentage of covered earnings.

If the unions merge, the shift in work to AFTRA becomes irrelevant to SAG and less worrisome to the Plan, since merger of the unions opens up the possibility of merger – in some form – with the AFTRA Health & Retirement Fund. The merger ballots are set to be tallied March 30, unless blocked by a pending lawsuit. The judge’s decision could come at any time.

The drop in earnings correlates closely with the drop in the number of scripted primetime hours covered by SAG:

Although the chart suggests that each hour of scripted primetime translates to about $10 million in earnings to SAG, that’s not quite the case, since TV earnings also include wages from SAG-covered basic cable and pay TV work.

The correlation implies that that work declined at a similar rate to primetime work and/or that aggregate wages from cable work are much lower than from primetime earnings. Otherwise, the correlation between primetime hours and overall earnings would probably not be so close.

SAG’s drop in series market share is a result of a drop in its share of primetime pilots. That share dropped sharply from 93 percent in 2006 – the earliest data available to THR – and then fell off a cliff from 2008 to 2009, plummeting from 70 percent to 10 percent in a single year:

That one year period was the time SAG contract negotiations with the studios stalemated. The guild worked without a contract from June 30, 2008, to almost a year later, and pilot producers fled to AFTRA. The phenomenon slowed from 2009 to 2010 when the guild came under new management, then reversed completely, with SAG’s share increasing in 2011 and 2012.

That share is still just 20 percent though, and it’s a steep hike back up to 50 percent, let alone higher. The rate of growth slowed somewhat in 2012, and there’s no assurance that SAG will ever reach 50 percent again, let alone 93 percent.

The above figures are calculated by adding up the amount of time each union controlled in primetime. On that basis, SAG’s market share in 2011 was already a tad under 50 percent, namely 49.55 percent, or 27.5 hours versus AFTRA’s 28 hours.

Counting on the basis on number of shows instead of number of hours doesn’t materially change any of the percentages, although it results in a guild market share of 48 percent in 2011, which is something of a symbolic difference. Both sets of figures differ by a percentage point or two from previously estimated figures.

Supporters and opponents of SAG/AFTRA merger draw very different conclusions from the pilot figures. Supporters point to the split earnings problem as a reason to merge, since that would eliminate the problem, if and when the two unions’ health and/or pension plans also merge. Supporters within SAG also argue that merger is the only way to stop the loss of SAG television work.

Merger opponents insist that the shift is a deliberate campaign by producers to weaken SAG because of what they describe as the guild’s stronger negotiating stance against management. Opponents accuse AFTRA of colluding with the producers in this effort. The claims seem to be made by inference: opponents do not appear ever to have publicly produced any emails or memos from producers or AFTRA that would support their claims.

From Pilots to Pickups to the Fall Schedule

The SAG figures also revealed some interesting information about pilots and series generally.

As this chart shows, half-hours from 2006 on generally got picked up at a rate of about 25 percent to 30 percent, while one-hours have about 50-50 odds. Those figures dropped in 2007, presumably on fears that the rocky WGA negotiations could collapse into a strike, as they did. The numbers rose back to pre-strike levels within a year or two.

More recently, half-hours took a jump in 2011 and one-hours a slight hit. It’s too early to know what 2012 will bring.

Not all pickups immediately turn into fall series; as a rough average, only about two-thirds do. The others are backup series that may turn into replacements for shows that fail to perform. Or may never actually get made, suffering the indignity of being cancelled before even having a chance to fail.

Fall series show an interesting pattern: new series make up roughly a third of all fall series, and the same holds true by format. That is, new one-hours make up roughly a third of all fall one-hours, and likewise for half-hours, at least on average. The half-hour numbers are more variable than the one-hour statistics.

And what do those series look like by format? As the chart below shows, half-hours represent about 20 percent of scripted programming time and one-hours represent the rest. (The ratio would be 30-70 if measured by the number of shows rather than amount of time.)

The shorter form showed a bit of an uptick in 2011, resulting from an increase of 3.5 hours of half-hour shows (i.e., seven shows) and a decrease of four one-hour shows.

As noted above, scripted time represents about two-thirds of all primetime.

Striking Changes

Not surprisingly, the 2007-2008 WGA strike and its prelude led to a variety of changes. Most were transient, but one – a drop in the number of pilots produced – persists to this day:

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Email: jhandel@att.net

Twitter: @jhandel