Broadcast pilots flying to AFTRA

Union dominating SAG with at least 50 of 70-plus projects

With SAG still reeling from an internal power struggle and engaged in protracted contract negotiations with producers, AFTRA is making big gains on its rival actors union in primetime television.

Once the odd man out during broadcast networks' winter pilot season with an occasional multicamera pilot, AFTRA is dominating the field this year with at least 50 of the 70-plus broadcast pilots to be produced coming under its jurisdiction.

If the trend continues, it could increase AFTRA's clout in the TV biz at SAG's expense, and it will give a shot in the arm to digital production because AFTRA projects are required to be shot on means other than film.

What caused the seismic shift between the two unions was the uncertainty surrounding SAG's talks with AMPTP and the threat of a SAG strike.

"SAG didn't have a contract, and given the choice, it made much more sense to go with AFTRA," a studio topper said.

Two studios -- 20th TV and Sony TV, which has a long-standing relationship with AFTRA -- are doing all of their pilots this year under AFTRA. For others, such as Warner Bros., Universal and ABC Studios, the portion of AFTRA pilots is more than 70%.

That is way up from a handful of AFTRA pilots in spring 2008 -- mostly CW dramas and a few comedies including CBS/ABC Studios' "Gary Unmarried," which went to series. Back then, there were only a couple of hourlong projects at the Big Four networks done under AFTRA, including presentations "Ny-Lon" and "Harper's Island" at CBS. Now SAG-repped projects are the exception.

While doing high-end dramas on anything but film had been long considered inconceivable, some of the biggest drama pilots this season are being shot on 24p digital video under AFTRA.

Both Jerry Bruckheimer pilots -- his detective show for ABC and "Miami Trauma" for CBS -- and David E. Kelley's new dramedy series "Legally Mad" for NBC are under AFTRA, as are ABC's sci-fi thriller "Flash Forward" and Romeo-and-Juliet drama "Empire State"; Fox's comic-book adaptation "Human Target," directed by feature helmer Simon West; and "The Da Vinci Code"-style action adventure "Masterwork."

High-profile single-camera comedies, once a SAG domain, also are moving. NBC's Amy Poehler comedy "Parks and Recreation" and Fox's remake of "Absolutely Fabulous" are shot digitally and affiliated with AFTRA this year.

Deciding which actors union to go with is up to the pilot's producers and director. But once past the pilot stage, the decision is permanent, translating the union affiliation to the potential series.

The speed of the shift from SAG to AFTRA parallels the stages of SAG's labor dispute with the studios during the past year.

After starting off with several AFTRA pilots last spring, the process accelerated during the summer, with a larger portion of the midseason pilots such as Fox's "Boldly Going Nowhere" and "Eva Adams" and almost all ABC comedy pilots, including single-camera "Better Off Ted," "The Unusuals," "Never Better" and "Roman's Empire," shot under AFTRA.

The trend moved into high gear in November when talks between SAG and the studios broke off and SAG announced that it would proceed with a strike-authorization vote.

WBTV and 20th TV issued almost identical statements, saying that "in response to the uncertainties created by a potential SAG strike," they were considering shooting their spring pilots as digital productions under AFTRA agreements.

Several studio and AFTRA sources stressed that going AFTRA does not save the studios money, as the switch does not mean actors are getting cheaper deals than those they would get through SAG under the same circumstances.

"We wouldn't be able to get the actors we want if we offered them inferior deals," one studio insider said.

In fact, with AFTRA having signed a new contract with the AMPTP, and SAG members still working under the union's expired deal, AFTRA rates are slightly higher than SAG's.

A union insider noted that the switch to more AFTRA production is part of a pendulum swing tied to the evolution of the viewers' tastes and the technology employed in television.

Most primetime shows in the golden era of multicamera comedy in the 1960s and '70s were under AFTRA because they were done on tape. But as dramas began to dominate schedules and the cost of film went down, SAG began to gain ground.

The entertainment conglomerates' mandate for cost cutting in the face of a recession also contributed to the shift from film to digital.

Cost savings from the switch are said to be about $30,000, or 1%-2% of the budget of a drama episode. That is significant given the fact that ABC Studios and 20th TV recently cut the budgets of all of their series by 2% in response to the economic crisis. Still, cost reduction was not as big an impetus for the dramatic shift from film to digital as was the turmoil around SAG.

What makes the transition more palpable for producers is the big advances in the digital technologies that eliminate previous shortcomings like inferior lighting and add advantages including easy digital effects.

The studios' big shift from SAG to AFTRA could bring new members to the latter.

Currently, AFTRA has 70,000 members compared with 120,000 for SAG. Those numbers are expected to climb as SAG-repped actors are cast in AFTRA-affiliated pilots.

While the SAG-AFTRA switch is dramatic, it could be short-lived.

Some suggest that SAG could regain its dominance next year with a new labor contract. Others believe the transition to digital -- and thus AFTRA -- is irreversible.

"Looking forward four to five years, more and more TV entertainment is going to be done in 24p, so there is no reason not to embrace it now," a studio exec said.