Now AFTRA comes to the table

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After two delays at the request of SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, AFTRA will take its place at the negotiating table today to formally start talks on its three-year primetime/TV contract with producers.

Meanwhile, SAG and the AMPTP left their table and put a spin on their 18 days of formal talks, which broke off Tuesday in a stalemate. The sides remain far apart.

SAG claims the AMPTP walked away despite its negotiating committee's objections and offer for round-the-clock talks.

"It is unfortunate and deeply troubling that the AMPTP would suspend our negotiations at this critical juncture," SAG president Alan Rosenberg said. "We have modified our proposals over the last three weeks in an effort to bargain a fair contract for our members."

The AMPTP said there was no reason to continue because "insufficient progress" had been made in the negotiations.

The AMPTP said SAG from the get-go refused to respect the deals struck by the WGA, the DGA and AFTRA in its Network Code, which included a new-media residual platform. SAG negotiators instead came to the table with more than 36 major new proposals to the new-media framework, "and more than a few of those were deal breakers," according to the producers.

SAG claims it was the AMPTP that submitted to the union three documents that contained 36 provisions that differed from the deals with the other unions.

Among the AMPTP's demands is the ability to use several minutes worth of actors' clips without paying them, which SAG claims is unacceptable.

"Management's clip demand would gut existing provisions regarding actors' consent to use of their clips and would allow studios and networks to use or sell clips — going forward and from their libraries — in any way they choose and without consent," SAG said.

Said one SAG member, who asked to not be named: "I don't think we'll ever give them clips. If we do, we'll have a lot of people pissed off at us. I think it's a negotiating ploy."

But a source close to the AMPTP said the producers, in an effort to combat pirated Web site clips, want to create an online library where users pay for the clips, similar to George Lucas' model for selling "Star Wars" material.

The producers are not against paying the actors, the source said, but find it would be administratively overwhelming to get consent from every actor for every clip.

With no new SAG-AMPTP return date set, the attention now turns to AFTRA, which has an open-ended timeline with the producers to hash out a new contract, known as Exhibit A of the Network Code. The current SAG and AFTRA deals expire June 30.

AFTRA elected to end its 27-year joint bargaining agreement with SAG on the primetime/TV contract in March and has been waiting in the wings as the actors guild started its formal talks with the AMPTP on April 15.

AFTRA's contract covers represented primetime network and cable TV dramas and sitcoms, including "Rules of Engagement," "Cashmere Mafia," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords," among others.

Leading AFTRA's negotiating committee will be Matthew Kimbrough, along with national president Roberta Reardon and national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth.

Many in the industry expect AFTRA to hammer out a deal with the producers in less than two weeks, which would put pressure on SAG when it returns to bargaining. Compared with SAG, AFTRA has a different negotiating philosophy and approach, some say, even though the two unions share similar concerns and 44,000 members.

"I think it's probably in the best interest of the studios and the networks to proceed with AFTRA negotiations now," said labor attorney Ivy Kagan Bierman. "Based on the negotiations with the AFTRA Network Code, it appears that AFTRA is going to be looking for terms and conditions that are similar to what the WGA and DGA negotiated, which is obviously in contrast to the SAG negotiations."

Entertainment attorney Schuyler Moore, whose clients include producers, indie distributors and private equity funds, agreed, adding, "I would assume that AFTRA will accept the studio proposal. It's so obviously correct that they've just got to, so hopefully they will.

What SAG will do while AFTRA negotiates its contract remains to be seen. Kagan Bierman said it will be a good time for the actors union to narrow its focus on what is truly important to the guild and its membership, as well as work with AFTRA.

It's expected that SAG leaders will sit in and observe the AFTRA-AMPTP negotiations, just as AFTRA did during SAG's 18 days of talks.

"I think it would be smart for them to try to work with AFTRA, whether it's behind the scenes or upfront, in focusing on what are the key changes that need to be made," Kagan Bierman said. "If it turns out that AFTRA ends up being the voice for the performers, then SAG is going to want to have input in that voice."

AFTRA has already successfully negotiated its Network Code covering actors and all other on-camera and off-camera talent on TV, including reality shows, syndicated dramas, soap operas, game shows, news and other areas. Members ratified the agreement by a 93% margin. The new three-year pact starts on Nov. 16, 2007.

Kagan Bierman thinks that AFTRA will likely engage in tough negotiations with the AMPTP, even though it may be more willing to agree to the same new-media provisions that the WGA and DGA did.

"I don't think AFTRA is going to roll over and die in the process," Kagan Bierman added. "AFTRA has a smart, strong leadership, and I think AFTRA recognizes the importance of AFTRA's role as a representative of the performers, particularly in a situation where the AMPTP ceases bargaining with SAG."

AFTRA says it will impose a media blackout and will not comment on negotiations as they go on.(partialdiff)
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