Fewer options for SAG

Tough to improve upon deals for WGA, AFTRA, DGA

SAG negotiators, including president Alan Rosenberg, were back at it with the studios and networks Thursday, a day after AFTRA reached its tentative deal with the AMPTP.

AFTRA's agreement is similar on key issues as pacts approved this year by the WGA and DGA, and it remains unclear how SAG might mark any further gains in those same areas. Like the others, AFTRA's deal -- now tagged for a membership ratification vote -- includes an increase in base pay, increases in employer contributions to the health and retirement plan and historic new jurisdiction over new media.

"I don't think (SAG is) going to be getting a better deal," entertainment labor attorney Alan Brunswick said. "I'd like to think they're realistic enough to know it doesn't make sense for them to strike by trying to better a deal three other unions have agreed to."

One of the stickiest issues that AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said they faced involved an AMPTP proposal to create a clip library and remove the right of consent for the nonpromotional use of clips. But that effectively was tabled in the tentative AFTRA agreement, to be revisited within three months of the pact's ratification. In the interim, actors will retain their consent rights.

Also, AFTRA and management agreed that actors joining new programs after July 1 can bargain the consent issue at the time of hire. That's a solution first proposed by SAG's negotiators -- and rejected by the AMPTP -- when they were bargaining in April.

As the only industry guild without a deal, SAG's hopes for making breakthrough gains on major issues appear to have faded. The guild's leadership might now be forced to focus on finding some areas in which progress can be made, given the current labor landscape, that it can sell to its membership.

Among the issues left on the table when SAG and the AMPTP suspended talks May 6 were proposed rollbacks to force majeure and new limits on product integration.

Force majeure comes into play when a production is interrupted for reasons beyond anyone's control, such as a strike or an earthquake. Currently, the studios and networks have the right to lay off employees and shutter production but must negotiate compensation with the guild.

The AMPTP has taken the position that force majeure would work better if individual negotiations between the producer and performer take place, something SAG is against.

"The employers have proposed doing away with these critical protections entirely, leaving it to you to individually negotiate," SAG told members in a briefing last week. "This not only takes away the collective clout of being part of a union but also would be like negotiating your health and retirement benefits alone, when you need your union the most."

The complexity of the force majeure provisions became clear for the unions as well as studio execs during the WGA strike.

"Nobody could figure out what the hell it meant, including SAG," an insider said. "Every company had a different interpretation."

AFTRA has a "most favored nation" clause on force majeure in its tentative pact, meaning it gets the same deal as SAG if improvements are made.

AFTRA's agreement does not include any new provisions on product integration, another potential area for SAG to make gains.

As viewers turn on their DVRs or turn to cable, the studios and networks have faced dwindling ad revenue. Product integration -- different from product placement, such as the prominent Coke cups placed on the judges' table on "American Idol" -- is seen as a way to make up for that lost revenue.

The studios, mindful of not alienating the audiences of non-reality programs with in-your-face advertising, have said they want to keep the integration as seamless as possible. It can be as easy as a character saying, "I'm going to Home Depot."

But SAG's leadership believes its members are being forced to "incorporate clumsy dialogue and action in order to pitch producers and services in television series and motion pictures more and more each year," according to a recent guild briefing. The union has proposed that actors receive compensation and pre-approval for product integration.

SAG and AFTRA's current contracts expire June 30.