AFTRA tops pilot season again

Union nabbed 64 projects on the broadcast networks

At last month's SAG Awards, Julianna Margulies picked up the best drama series actress trophy for CBS' "The Good Wife," marking the first time in recent history a guild trophy had gone to a performer on an AFTRA-designated broadcast show.

In fact, two of the 10 SAG Awards nominees for best ensemble -- "Wife" and ABC's comedy "Modern Family" -- were from AFTRA series.

That number is expected to go even higher as AFTRA dominates the broadcast pilot season for a second consecutive year.

According to the union, 64 pilots and presentations on the five broadcast networks so far this season will have AFTRA affiliation.

With the exception of CBS' "Criminal Minds" spinoff, which is inheriting the SAG designation of the original series, every pilot whose affiliation has been determined so far has gone with AFTRA, which is expected to cover nearly 100% of this year's crop, the union said. That includes all high-end drama pilots including J.J. Abrams' "Undercovers," David E. Kelley's "Kindreds" and David Shore's "Rockford Files" at NBC, Jerry Bruckheimer's "Chase" at NBC and "The Whole Truth" at ABC, "Hawaii Five-0" on CBS and "Ridealong" on Fox.

Surely, this comes as a blow to SAG's new leadership.

After a sharp reversal of fortune for SAG during the previous pilot season, new national president Ken Howard listed retention of coverage of network pilots as a top priority when he ran for office in the fall.

With broadcast networks and studios fearing a possible SAG strike in spring 2009, they went from 90%-plus SAG pilot representation the year before to 90%-plus AFTRA affiliation, with "Wife" and "Family" among the pilots from that first wave of AFTRA domination.

With no labor stoppage on the horizon, SAG was expected to regain pilot ground, especially with a more moderate regime in place at the leading actors union.

Part of the reason it hasn't is the networks' mass transition from 35mm to the less-expensive and more-flexible digital production. SAG has a monopoly over shooting on film, but digitally filmed shows can sign with either AFTRA or SAG.

Studio and network sources indicated that, despite changes at the top of SAG, they're going with AFTRA because it still is considered a safer alternative.

"They've had some instability, and instability creates uncertainty," one insider said of SAG.

Possible exceptions to AFTRA's chokehold this pilot season could come if a big-name actor demands SAG representation or a top director requires a shoot on film, which so far has not happened.

As for ramifications, AFTRA's continuing domination of broadcast pilots and younger series might accelerate merger talks between SAG and AFTRA, which tried to unite unsuccessfully in 1998 and 2003.

With AFTRA openly supporting a merger and Howard calling for "greater unity" with AFTRA, combining the unions could become the only alternative to a possible future segregation, with SAG representing film and AFTRA controlling TV. (That would actually be a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s when AFTRA was the dominant player in primetime as most shows were filmed on video tape.)

In a promising first step, both unions already have indicated that they are looking to negotiate jointly the next primetime contract with TV studios, talks on which are scheduled to begin in October.