AFTRA: We're needed more than ever


Sure, AFTRA successfully negotiated six contracts in 2008, but many challenges confront the federation in the new year. In Part 2 of a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter sister publication Back Stage, AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon and national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth spoke about the shrinking economy, the impact of Jay Leno's move to primetime and the importance of contract enforcement in these trying times.

Roberta Reardon: Certainly that's a loss of actors' jobs on broadcast television, and that's a problem. But the increased amount of scripted work on cable is enormous. It's not as if the scripted work has disappeared; it's shifting platforms. Of course, as the president of AFTRA, for Jay Leno and the people who will be working on Leno's new show, I'm thrilled. As an actor, all I can say is the jobs are shifting from broadcast to cable at an extreme rate. Part of that is because broadcast is so expensive to produce and cable is produced at lower budgets. I would hazard to guess that the total number of acting jobs won't disappear, but the number of jobs on primetime television will go down.

Reardon: Yes. For various reasons, when you get into a cable discussion, you get into a discussion that is much more nuanced because there are so many different price points and viewerships. We went through this when television took over for radio, when variety shifted to scripted entertainment. Television is not a one-size-fits-all medium. Of course, as you get more and more platforms, there is more and more opportunity. There are not always going to be the same kinds of opportunity. One thing I've learned over the past year: Our industry is changing rapidly, and change is good, but change means change. It doesn't mean more of the same. We would be fools to think that it stays the same.

Kim Roberts Hedgpeth: The observation about Leno goes back to our point about all the people working for the same six or eight employers really standing together. The potential for a nondramatic show to take five hours of primetime has always been around. There are always fluctuations depending on economics, taste of the audiences, etc. This highlights the importance of people working along different craft lines working in the same union, together.

Reardon: I couldn't disagree more. In any kind of merged media union, actors are going to be a major part of that because there are more actors than there are recording artists, disc jockeys or (newscasters). Even now, AFTRA doesn't walk away from a particular type of entertainment because we can make it somewhere else. We have a responsibility to our members who are very vocal about their needs, and we're responsive to them. Any union that would ignore the needs of its members would soon cease to exist.

Hedgpeth: I would also say that AFTRA is predominantly an actors' union already. A majority of our members are actors. And we have already successfully addressed that area. The idea that you would solve a macro problem — the employers' ability to shift programming — by segregating yourself is not just counterintuitive, it's counterproductive. If the employer has that ability to shift, the smart thing to do would be for everybody to be in the same union.

Reardon: It's hard across the spectrum at AFTRA. You've seen the layoffs at the networks, the layoffs on Madison Avenue, and that's bound to affect all of us. You see budgets getting smaller. I would imagine that one of the things you would see is more digital work because if you have a limited budget, the first place you can save money is to stop shooting film.

Reardon: Yes. With a tighter bottom line, it will be interesting to see how it affects everybody.

Hedgpeth: One of the things I'm concerned about are how many companies are going to be there a year from now or two years from now. One of the counterintuitive things in unions' work is that when the economy gets bad, the union work gets more difficult, more intense, because as employers are cutting back, they look for ways to cut corners. Contract enforcement gets that much more difficult. We're going to have to make sure that our members' interests are protected, make sure that in challenging economic times we are doing our best to organize, and that we make sure that our economy does not shift to a nonunion economy.

Andrew Salomon is news editor at Back Stage.