SAG TV Session Fees Plummet 11.1% in 2010

The drop continues a trend that began in 2005 but accelerated after the writers strike – but the picture is more complex than a single number may suggest.

SAG principal session fees for television work slid 11.1% from 2009 to 2010 according to figures released by the guild. That number is bad enough, but consider this: SAG, like all the above the line unions, received a 3.5% wage increase in 2010. If SAG’s market share had held firm, session fees should have increased by 3.5%, not dropped by 11.1%. That’s a swing for the worse of over 14%.

The union attributed the drop to “lost coverage,” an indirect reference, at least in part, to AFTRA’s heavy share of new series for the past several seasons.

SAG’s share of new series has dropped each year from 2009 onwards, and AFTRA’s has increased. The number of hours of scripted programming may also have changed over that period, which would affect both unions, although AFTRA could recoup a small amount of its losses, since it often covers the hosts or judges of reality programs.

However, contrary to popular belief, the drop may not be entirely attributable to SAG’s failure to sign a studio contract in 2008, which triggered a stalemate that lasted until mid-2009 and resulted in AFTRA achieving a roughly 90% share of primetime pilots and new primetime series in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons.

On the contrary, the slide started in 2005 and accelerated after the WGA strike that ran from Nov. 2007 until Feb. 2008 – i.e., even before the SAG stalemate that began in mid-2008. That suggests that other factors may also be at work, such as the recession and AFTRA’s increasing share of basic cable series, a phenomenon that began mid-decade.

Still, the drop since 2005 has been a punishing 37%. Over that same time period, SAG minimums increased by more than 16%. Had SAG retained market share, it would be seeing a healthy increase over that period, not a calamitous drop.

A comparison with AFTRA is impossible because the latter doesn’t release earnings figures.

As old series end their runs and new series take their place, the bad news for SAG may continue – unless SAG and AFTRA merge. Merger advocates point to this as one reason among many for merger.

Some opponents, on the other hand, look at the same figures and allege a conspiracy between AFTRA, the studios, networks and producers, and some elements of SAG’s leadership to weaken the guild by sending work to AFTRA, precisely in order to drive merger.

Despite the claim, merger opponents do not seem ever to have publicly explained how the conspiracy was effected, and when and by whom.

When residuals and background fees (extras) are added in, last year’s drop was smaller, 8.2% rather than 11.1%. Residuals themselves dropped only 1.9%. Residuals don’t track session fees, because many residuals formulas don’t relate to session fees. Also, changing reuse patterns affect total residuals.

SAG’s grand total earnings – session fees, residuals and background from television, theatrical, commercials and smaller agreements – has hovered between $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion since 2004, with no particular trend up or down. Total session fees have declined since 2007, but residuals show no clear trend over that period.

The earnings report appears in the current issue of SAG’s member magazine and is also available on the union’s website.

All the figures reflect capped wages: for instance, earnings above $15,000 for a half-hour episode or $24,500 for a one-hour are not included. There are higher ceilings for television long-form and significantly higher ones ($200,000 or $232,000) for theatrical motion pictures.

The earnings caps are a result of the data source, which is the SAG pension and health plans. Earnings above certain levels are not subject to p&h, and so the excess is not reported to the plans.

As a result, economic class differences within the union are obscured in the reports. For instance, if producers decide to spend more of their cast budget on a small number of stars, and force other actors to accept salaries below their quotes, the guild’s earnings report could show a drop in total earnings even if producers’ total cast expenditures remained unchanged or even increased.

Whether that’s part of the picture is unclear. Middle-class actors do report “salary compression” – i.e., being driven down from their quotes. However, whether television salaries at the very top of the thespian food chain have increased is unknown.

The Hollywood Reporter will have further analysis later, and will provide a link here.


Twitter: @jhandel