Pilots Overwhelmingly AFTRA for 4th Year in a Row (Exclusive)

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Once again, TV pilots are being overwhelmingly produced under AFTRA jurisdiction, with that union covering at least 80% of this season’s broadcast network pilots, a study by The Hollywood Reporter has determined.

That continues a pattern that began in late 2008 and early 2009, when SAG was working without a contract and operating under an administration that threatened a strike. Although SAG’s leadership has changed since then, the trend continues, even though AFTRA’s minimums are 3.5% higher than SAG’s. The 2009 pilot figures were a 180 degree switch from the previous year’s, when SAG had about a 90% share.

Pilot figures are a harbinger of series pickups: in recent years, AFTRA’s share of pilots that went to series was similar to its percentage share of pilots themselves.

The AFTRA figures are a slight dip from the numbers in recent years, which were 87% (2011), 98% (2010) and between 87%-94% (2009). (Variations in the 2009 figure result from differences in calculation methods.)

The shift in work benefits AFTRA by increasing the number of members and total membership dues, and increasing employer contributions to the union’s health and retirement funds. SAG is conversely disadvantaged.

AFTRA members also benefit from the union’s higher minimums. The union and its H&R fund benefit from this too, since union working dues and employer H&R contributions depend on member earnings. The 3.5% differential began when AFTRA reached agreement on a contract with the studios in May 2008, but SAG failed to do so until about a year later.

However, actors who work in both film and television can suffer as a result of the migration of TV work to AFTRA. An apparently increasing number of them find that with their earnings split between two unions, they fail to achieve qualifying earnings levels in either union. That means they may not qualify for health insurance or for a credit towards vesting their pensions.

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 argument.

Key merger opponents were also the leaders of SAG in 2008 and early 2009 – and it was their decision to resist a deal with the studios that led to the flight of pilots to AFTRA. That would seem to put the initial responsibility for this shift squarely on their shoulders. However, it’s unclear why AFTRA’s share of pilot production has stayed at such high levels three years after control of SAG shifted to the pro-merger faction.

The THR analysis is based on figures provided by the unions at THR’s request, as well as an examination of breakdowns released on Breakdown Services’ Breakdown Express Database, and a pilot tracking list prepared by veteran agent Christopher Barrett, president of Metropolitan Talent Agency, and his staff.

The three sets of figures yielded slightly different results, but all showed AFTRA with at least 80% of network broadcast pilots:

• THR’s review of breakdowns issued as of Sunday for ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC projects found 51 AFTRA pilots and 12 SAG, or 81% AFTRA and 19% SAG.

Breakdowns are notices from casting directors requesting agents to submit talent for various roles, which are described by age and characteristics. The information in a breakdown usually also includes the applicable union, network, production company, format, show description (log line) and the like.

In addition to the 63 pilots accounted for (51+12), there are also 2 pilots indicating that choice of union was yet to be determined. All of the pilots are live action, except an untitled Demetri Martin animated show for Fox, which indicated nothing about union status. Several of the pilots have been ordered straight to series.

There are about 88 pilots being cast or produced this season (based on MTA tracking supplemented with press reports in the last several days), meaning that there are no Breakdown Services breakdowns for about 22 pilots.

Why the missing breakdowns? MTA’s Barrett told THR that some producers and casting directors cast their pilots by sending breakdowns directly to a targeted list of agencies, rather than the wider distribution reached by Breakdown Services. In addition, some pilots may have yet to issue breakdowns, or may yet decide to use Breakdown Services if targeted circulation did not successfully cast all roles.

The network by network figures are: ABC –  11 AFTRA, 4 SAG, 1 tbd, 10 no breakdowns, for a total of 25 pilots; CBS –  9 AFTRA, 2 SAG, 1 tbd, 4 no breakdowns, 16 total; The CW – 4 AFTRA, 1 SAG, 2 no breakdowns, 7 total; Fox – 8 AFTRA, 1 SAG, 5 no breakdowns, 1 unspecified, 15 total; NBC – 19 AFTRA, 4 SAG, 1 no breakdown, 24 total; and total figures – 51 AFTRA, 12 SAG, 2 tbd, 22 no breakdowns, 1 unspecified, 88 grand total.

• AFTRA figures as of Thursday indicated 80% AFTRA and 20% SAG. This was based on 24 ordered pilots as confirmed AFTRA and 6 SAG, out of 68 confirmed pilots ordered. AFTRA had no information on 38 pilots that were ordered.

As for the difference between 68 pilots ordered and 86 pilots being produced – i.e., 18 pilots – Barrett explained that casting directors may issue breakdowns before a network has picked up the pilot. A few of those pilots may then fall through, i.e., not achieve a network order. For instance, one of the NBC-designated pilots is on hold, according to MTA’s tracking.

• SAG figures as of Friday showed 9 SAG pilots ordered, out of a total of 68 ordered. SAG did not have figures on how many ordered pilots were AFTRA. However, if all of the remainder were AFTRA, the result would indicate 87% AFTRA and 13% SAG.

Although pilot season is dominated by the five broadcast networks, there are some 38 basic cable and pay TV (premium cable) projects being cast as well. Of these, 10 are AFTRA and 4 SAG, or 71% AFTRA and 19% SAG. There are also two pilots being produced for new media: Netflix’s House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey, which is under AFTRA jurisdiction, and Machinima.com’s Rapid Eye Movement, under the SAG new media agreement. The Netflix pilot is part of a series order of 26 episodes, for which Netflix successfully bid about $100 million last March. The show is produced by Media Rights Capital.

In an unusual move, a half-hour multi-camera basic cable pilot – an untitled Cedric the Entertainer project (Hazy Mills for TV Land) – is under SAG jurisdiction. That format has traditionally been an AFTRA staple. UPDATE: this story originally listed Anger Management (a Lionsgate pilot being produced for FX) as another half-hour multi-camera basic cable pilot under SAG jurisdiction. That was what was listed on the breakdowns, but on March 5, THR learned that the breakdown was erroneous and the show is under AFTRA.

In addition, two half-hour network pilots of unknown format (single vs. multi camera) have gone SAG as well: Partners (Warner Bros. TV for CBS) and Prodigy/Bully (John Wells and Warner Bros. TV for Fox).

Correction: An earlier version of this story described House of Cards as being a SAG project. This was based on THR’s review of four separate breakdowns issued by the show’s casting director in the last 30 days, all of which identified SAG as the applicable union. However, THR was notified by a reader that the show is nonetheless being produced under AFTRA, and the union has confirmed this. THR regrets the error.

Email: jhandel@att.net

Twitter: @jhandel