AFTRA, AMPTP to begin talks Wednesday

Deal expected within two weeks

After two delays at the request of SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, AFTRA comes to the negotiating table and formally starts talks Wednesday on its three-year primetime/TV contract with the producers. But not before SAG and the AMPTP put a spin on their 18 days of formal talks, which broke off Tuesday in a stalemate, with no new deal and both sides remaining far apart on the issues.

SAG claims the AMPTP walked away from the bargaining table, 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, however, said there was no reason to continue because "insufficient progress" had been made in the negotiations, which had been extended twice before, most recently on a day-to-day basis.

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.

However, 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" clips.

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 both sides ending talks and no new date set, the attention now turns to AFTRA, which has an open-ended timeline with the AMPTP to hash out a new contract, known as Exhibit A of the Network Code, which expires June 30.

AFTRA elected to end its 27-year joint bargaining agreement with SAG on the primetime/TV contract in March and has since 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 the bargaining table. 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.

"I think the one thing they'll bring to the table that SAG doesn't is intelligence," he added. "I think SAG has become a political soapbox for the leadership. They like to pound their chests, and it has nothing to do with economics anymore."

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.

SAG won't be that far away from the talks. 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."

The AMPTP said it hopes that the three weeks it has been at the table with SAG has laid groundwork for them to pick up negotiations after AFTRA and before June 30.

SAG also said it wants to keep the town working and is prepared to continue negotiations and burn the midnight oil to negotiate a good deal for its members.

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 runs from Nov. 16, 2007, to Nov. 15, 2010.

But Kagan Bierman said that AFTRA will most likely engage in tough negotiations with the AMPTP, even though they may be more willing to agree to the same new-media provisions that the WGA and DGA and their Network Code 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."

But if AFTRA can hammer out a deal quickly, SAG could have several weeks to return to the bargaining with the AMPTP and start up talks again before the June 30 contract expiration.

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