As ballots go out for SAG members to decide on a new president and whether or not to merge with the smaller American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Los Angeles Times has published an article on the weakened state of SAG as it goes into its election.
With 125,000 members, the 76-year-old SAG is still the mightiest union in Hollywood. But its clout has been diminished by internal bickering, a divided boardroom and a disastrous power struggle with a smaller union that represents actors as well as broadcast journalists and disc jockeys.
Among the most startling signs of SAG’s weakened state is its grip over primetime television. SAG’s contracts cover only 17% of the new scripted primetime TV shows on the major broadcast networks, down from 86% a year ago. When it appeared SAG might strike last year, the broadcast networks took their business to AFTRA, which now controls 83% of new primetime shows. AFTRA suspended its longtime bargaining partnership with SAG last year after a dispute over turf, freeing the union to negotiate directly with the studios for primetime TV contracts.
Although SAG continues to dominate primetime television, the shift of work to AFTRA is taking a toll, reducing contributions to the actors’ health and pension plans and eroding union dues, which were already depressed because of last year’s production slowdown.
The guild had a nearly $6-million operating deficit in fiscal 2009, which ended April 30, thanks to investment losses, a drop in member dues and excessive expenses. That included funds spent on a fruitless campaign to oppose AFTRA’s contract because SAG’s former negotiators felt it contained too many concessions and undercut their own negotiations.
The guild laid off 35 workers this year to balance its $60-million budget. Although it has $20 million in reserve, SAG has projected a $4-million deficit for fiscal 2010, people familiar with the guild’s finances said.
SAG’s decline comes as actors are having a tougher time finding work. Studios cut back production because of the sagging economics of the business, and networks have replaced more scripted programs with less expensive reality fare, game shows and talk shows. Actors have seen a steady slide in their income from residuals, the extra fees they get from reruns, as fewer shows repeat on the networks or are sold in syndication. Networks increasingly repeat shows on the Internet, where residuals are a fraction of those on network television, or on cable TV, where pay rates are lower.
With all that the actors’ union is facing, perhaps this is one time that silicone implants and botox injections won’t help lift the SAG.