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Why These Could Be The Last SAG Awards

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.

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AFTRA Tops SAG In Primetime Next Season

Nellie Andreeva

SAG_logoAFTRA_LOGO_SLOGOOf the 38 new broadcast scripted series next season, only one, Fox’s comedy Running Wilde, chose to go with SAG in what has become a watershed moment in the primetime dynamic between AFTRA and SAG, with AFTRA overtaking SAG as the top actors union. For the first time, AFTRA will represent more scripted series on the broadcast networks next season than the field’s long-time dominant player SAG. There will be 45 AFTRA series on the air next season vs. 38 SAG shows. That is a big swing from last year when 48 series were under SAG and 26 under AFTRA. It is the result of a second consecutive freshman class on the broadcast networks dominated by AFTRA-represented shows.

Of the 38 new comedy and drama series picked up for next season at the 5 broadcast nets, 34 are under AFTRA jurisdiction and 4 are under SAG. Last year, there were 24 new series, 18 represented by AFTRA and 6 by SAG. But 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. Last year, that included all 6 SAG series: the remakes V and Eastwick on ABC, spinoffs NCIS: LA on CBS and The Cleveland Show on Fox and ABC’s comedy The Middle and Fox’s Glee, originally developed during previous cycles. (Glee was the result of off-cycle development.) This year, the list of SAG-represented new series include spinoffs Law & Order: Los Angeles on NBC and the untitled Criminal Minds spinoff on CBS, the Nikita remake on the CW as well as one brand new series, Running Wilde.

AFTRA had had limited presence on the broadcast networks’ scripted series, mostly courtesy of Sony TV, which has long been closely associated with the smaller actors union, producing all of its series under AFTRA. But the mass switch from SAG to AFTRA among all major TV studios began during last year’s pilot season. It was fueled by fears of a potential SAG strike and was helped by the studios’ transition from film to digital video (If a series is filmed on 35 mm, it can only be covered by SAG; if it’s shot on digital video, it can be represented by SAG or AFTRA). In 2009, broadcast pilots went to to 90%-plus AFTRA affiliation from 90%-plus SAG pilot representation the year before. This year, with no labor stoppage on the horizon, SAG was expected to regain pilot ground, especially with a more moderate leadership in place. In fact, new SAG president Ken Howard listed retention of coverage of network pilots as a top priority when he ran for office in the fall. But the TV studios overwhelmingly stuck with AFTRA, which dominated pilot season for a second straight year with more than 90% representation. Why? Studio insiders tell me AFTRA continues to be considered the safer, more stable alternative.

SAG still represents most returning series (34 vs. 11 for AFTRA) but two years of overwhelmingly more new series under AFTRA have undercut SAG’s dominance even in that area. While the larger actors union continues to represent the vast majority of returning series at ABC, Fox and CBS, at NBC and the the CW, the unions have almost equal representation: 57%-43% in SAG’s favor. “If AFTRA and SAG don’t merge, AFTRA will be the dominant player in primetime within a couple of years,” one industry insider told me.

The drumbeat has been growing louder for a merger between SAG and AFTRA, which tried to unite unsuccessfully in 1998 and 2003. The dramatic representation shift in primetime may serve as a catalyst for that. I hear actors who work in both film and television are becoming increasingly frustrated that they have to be represented by one union when they do a feature and another when doing a series. The same is true for TV actors who appear on both SAG and AFTRA series. By dividing their earnings between the two unions, some of them don’t qualify for health insurance through neither of SAG nor AFTRA, even though their total yearly income would’ve easily push them over the threshold at either union.

The SAG/AFTRA relations seem to be thawing: The two unions recently approved a joint bargaining agreement and have been holding joint Wages & Working Conditions meetings in preparation for negotiation of the AFTRA Exhibit A and SAG TV/Theatrical contract that expires on June 30, 2011. That date comes right after the next development cycle for the broadcast networks, which no doubt will make for an eventful pilot season next year.

Following are lists of new and returning broadcast series by actors union affiliation: Read More »

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