Sony plays the hiatus card

SAG will fight studio strike tactic

TV actors have been among the strongest supporters of the writers strike, regularly walking the picket lines with the scribes.

Now they, too, are beginning to feel the effects of the walkout as scripted series go dark one by one. What's more, the terms and conditions of the actors' time off during the strike might spur a legal fight between SAG and the studios.

On Friday, Sony Pictures TV became the first TV studio to notify the regulars on two series that already have shut down production — the sitcoms " 'Til Death" and "Rules of Engagement" — that they are being put on unpaid hiatus, remaining exclusive to the studio.

Since the writers walkout began Monday, TV studios have been debating how to deal with series regulars — whether to invoke the force majeure clause in their contracts that involves termination or put them on hiatus.

While no other studio has made a decision yet, sources said at least two majors are leaning towards the hiatus scenario.

That doesn't sit well with SAG.

"It has come to the attention of Screen Actors Guild that some producers may be asserting that a suspension of production of a television series at this time will be considered a hiatus and that the force majeure provisions of the SAG Television Agreement will be inapplicable," the union said in a letter Friday. "In the absence of extraordinary factual circumstances, any series production that is suspended at this time will require compliance with the force majeure provisions of the SAG Television Agreement."

According to SAG's interpretation of Section 61 of its collective bargaining agreement, the studios have three options in case of a strike: put series regulars on hold at full salary, suspend them for a period of up to five weeks at half-pay or terminate them.

Producers can terminate the actors at any point after a strike is called. If they opt for suspension, the performers can terminate their deals at the end of the five-week period. If they don't do that, the studios can choose to keep the regulars with full pay or end their deals.

Upon termination, actors, who are no longer paid, are free to do other projects. When production on the shows resumes, they are guaranteed rehire by the studios at the original terms of their deals. The actors have to make an effort to accommodate the series, but their new projects are in first position. During hiatus, however, actors must drop whatever they might be doing and report to their series immediately if they resume.

"Hiatus is not an option offered in the collective bargaining agreement when production is interrupted," SAG general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said. "We will be taking issue with any studios and producers who attempt to do that."

The steps SAG is considering include discussions with the studios as well as possibly launching a grievance process, Crabtree-Ireland said.

SAG is not going to do that on "Death" and "Rules," which are both AFTRA shows, but the two sister unions have the same contracts with the producers.

"Our policy — which drives our ongoing discussions with employers — is that AFTRA members fully expect employers to abide by the terms and conditions of the collective bargaining agreements," a rep for AFTRA said.

The SAG-AFTRA film and TV contract expires June 30.