Universal defends its use of force

Actors say UMS suspension letters more like hiatus


Universal Media Studios' force majeure letters to actors created rumblings in the talent world Friday.

On Thursday afternoon, UMS sent out written notifications to the regulars on four series: NBC's "The Office," "30 Rock" and "Bionic Woman" and Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica." They were different in length for the different shows but included the same paragraph informing the actor that his/her services had been suspended according to the force majeure clauses in his/her contracts as well as the applicable terms of the SAG agreement regarding force majeure events. There were no further details about what exactly that entails.

On Friday, some actors' representatives were instructed over the phone by NBC Uni legal/business affairs reps that their clients are being suspended without pay, remain exclusive to the studio and have a 48-hour recall time to report for work after the strike ends. Such terms closely resemble a hiatus status rather than what constitutes force majeure per SAG.

According to SAG's interpretation of Section 61 of its collective bargaining agreement, the suspension option in case of force majeure calls for the actors to be sidelined for a period of up to five weeks at half pay. At the end of that period, the performers or the studios terminate the deals (unless the studios decide to put them on hold with full pay).

Upon termination, actors are free to do other projects. When production on the shows resumes, they are guaranteed to be rehired under the original terms of their deals and have to make an effort to accommodate the series, but their new projects are in first position.

The terms of suspending regulars on TV shows shut down by the writers strike had been a subject of a heated debate in studio circles since the walkout began two weeks ago.

Unpaid hiatus that keeps actors exclusive had been the studios' preferred option until the first one to implement it -- Sony Pictures TV on its sitcoms " 'Til Death" and "Rules of Engagement" -- came under fire from SAG and AFTRA, which called it a violation of their joint TV contract and vowed to take action against it.

What further complicates matters is that not everyone is convinced that a planned union strike constitutes a force majeure, or act of god. Additionally, the force majeure/union stoppage clauses in some actors' personal contracts are said to include them being suspended with no pay (beyond guaranteed episodic minimums) and an obligation to return to work immediately once the work stoppage ends, something that looks and feels like a hiatus.

What's more, regulars on shows are normally paid by episode produced, not by week. Sources indicated that what studios are trying to do is extend the options on the actors for this season, keeping them available beyond the regular filming schedule in case series need to stay in production longer to compensate for the forced strike-related stoppage and complete as many episodes of their orders as possible.

Last week, Katherine Heigl, co-star of ABC/ABC Studios' "Grey's Anatomy," committed to a movie that is scheduled to begin production April 15 (HR 11/16).

On Friday, a rep for UMS insisted that the studio was strictly following SAG's force majeure provisions and was not effectively putting its actors on hiatus.

Also on Friday, a rep for SAG said the union had received copies of UMS' official letters but had no reports of verbal instructions by the studios that might contradict the union's force majeure clause.