Nellie Andreeva

They’re still called the SAG Awards. But the upcoming 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild show on January 30th could just as easily be called the AFTRA Awards in terms of television. That’s because an increasing number of categories, especially among comedy series, are dominated by AFTRA shows. On December 16th when the SAG Awards nominations were announced, AFTRA put out a congratulatory note listing all nominees from AFTRA shows. And while SAG still represents movies and such TV heavy hitters as Mad Men, Dexter, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, Glee, The Office, and The Big Bang Theory as well as hot awards prospects like Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead, AFTRA now boasts top awards TV contenders such as Modern Family, The Good Wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Nurse Jackie as well as Parks & Recreation and Community.

I’m now hearing that this could be the last SAG Awards. If even the most optimistic merger scenarios come true, then by the end of 2011 and just in time for the 18th SAG Awards, Hollywood may have a single actors union that would replace SAG and AFTRA. And therefore a newly conceived awards show for the combined actors’ union. The awards telecast would reflects what’s been happening union-wise on the TV side over the past couple of years. Where once TV was populated by virtually 100% SAG-designated series, the pendulum has swung to AFTRA in primetime since the writers strike.

Of the 38 new broadcast scripted series this season, only one (Fox’s comedy Running Wilde) chose to go with SAG in what became a watershed moment in the primetime dynamic between AFTRA and SAG. For the first time, AFTRA is representing more scripted series on the broadcast networks this season than long-time dominant player SAG. And it’s important to note the SAG affiliation for the majority of new series repped by the union was not by choice but automatic because they were based on existing properties or spinoffs of existing SAG-represented series.

Right now, a small group of SAG stalwarts who oppose a merger with AFTRA are urging guild voters not to reward AFTRA shows with SAG wards. But actors from AFTRA-covered series have always been eligible for SAG Awards alongside those from shows under SAG contracts. In fact, beyond an occasional phone call to AFTRA to confirm coverage for a show during the eligibility-establishing period, the series’ union affiliation plays no role in the nominee- and winner-selection process. “We honor performances, not programs,” said SAG Awards spokeswoman Rosalind Jarrett.

Underscoring that, SAG doesn’t keep record of union affiliation for the SAG Award nominees and winners. Those nominees and winners are determined by SAG’s active members. Some 44,000 of the 125,000 SAG members have dual SAG-AFTRA membership, including the vast majority of primetime series actors. But theoretically, AFTRA-represented actors on AFTRA-covered shows wouldn’t be able vote for their SAG Award-eligible fellow cast members – thus undermining the voted-by-peers principle of the awards. This would all become irrelevant if SAG and AFTRA’s ongoing merger efforts succeed. The current listening tour by the presidents of SAG and AFTRA who are meeting with groups of members to get their take on a combined union is expected to kick into high gear with meetings in Hollywood in early January, during the weeks leading to the 17th — and potentially last — SAG Awards.

At last January’s SAG Awards, Julianna Margulies won the best drama series trophy for CBS’ The Good Wife, marking the first time in recent history that a SAG award had gone to an actor on an AFTRA-represented series.

For this year’s SAG Awards, the number of AFTRA nominees went up in the individual comedy series categories, including a dominating performance in the best comedy actress field where 3 out of 5 nominees hail from AFTRA shows: reigning Emmy winner Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), and Betty White (Hot In Cleveland). The rest of the actors from AFTRA-represented shows who received SAG nominations were Ty Burrell and Ed O’Neill (Modern Family) for comedy actor, and Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and Glenn Close (Damages) for best drama actress, as well as the casts of The Good Wife, Modern Family, and Hot In Cleveland which was one of only two new series to crack the SAG nominations this year along with SAG-represented HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, which also landed 2 noms.

TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.