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The ABCs of a possible SAG strike

The auto industry’s crashing. Wall Street’s ticker is bouncing like those giant red balls on "Wipeout." Television is supposed to offer a refuge from reality, an escape from economic issues and hardships.But less than a year after one crippling strike, some popular TV shows may succumb to another work stoppage.The Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, has announced it will mail ballots to its 120,000 m
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The auto industry’s crashing. Wall Street’s ticker is bouncing like those giant red balls on "Wipeout." Television is supposed to offer a refuge from reality, an escape from economic issues and hardships.

But less than a year after one crippling strike, some popular TV shows may succumb to another work stoppage.

The Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, has announced it will mail ballots to its 120,000 members on Jan. 2 requesting authorization to strike against production studios. Votes will be tabulated by Jan. 23. Union leaders need 75 percent approval to proceed.

For viewers who’ve been distracted by economic survival of late, here’s a brief rundown on the players and the scorecard:

Q. What is SAG?

A.  SAG was founded in 1933 and is the largest union representing actors in filmed productions for TV and the movies. Its current president is Alan Rosenberg (recently separated from wife Marg Helgenberger of "CSI" fame). Its best-known past president was Ronald Reagan, a famously tough negotiator with the studios.

Now remember that word “filmed,” because it’s important.

Q. Who’s on the other side?

A.  The Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, or AMPTP, a management group spearheaded by executives from Hollywood’s eight top studios, including Viacom Inc. (CBS), Disney Co. (ABC), News Corp. (Fox) and General Electric Co. (NBC).

Q. What are the issues?

A.  The talks, which broke down before Thanksgiving, focus on actors receiving royalties from content distributed via new media: iTunes, DVDs, etc. These items aren’t covered in the old SAG contract and are a growing source of revenue. Another issue is payment for mentioning products on scripted series, which earns the shows advertising income.

In fact, the major distinction between the SAG-AMPTP fight and other industry disputes is that while most workers these days are trying not to pay for management decisions, SAG would like to cash in on them.

Q. Why have a strike?

A. Recent history has shown some effectiveness. The strike by the Writers Guild of America that shortened the 2007-2008 TV season centered on the same new-media issues and did win some key concessions from the studios.

But the WGA had good timing. Its strike was supported by other professionals negotiating with the studios, such as the Directors Guild of America. Those unions since have gotten contracts, which may weaken SAG’s support — especially since some insiders say SAG is asking for higher percentages than these other royalty-seekers won.

Q. What shows would be affected by the strike?

Remember that word “filmed?” It holds the answer to what viewers might or might not see.

SAG isn’t the only performers’ union. The younger American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA, was formed in the wake of new technologies. Its 70,000 members appear in videotaped productions such as soap operas, reality shows and some primetime series, as well as news and sports programming.

AFTRA reached agreement in July on a new contract with the studios. So a strike won’t halt such videotaped or live programs as “American Idol,” “Deal or No Deal,” 60 Minutes,” “The Daily Show” and NFL football.

But filmed productions that include Top 20 series like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,”  “Desperate Housewives” and “House” would be affected — to a point. Viewers can be thankful that the studios learned from last year’s strike and accelerated production schedules. Many primetime series already have between 75 and 90 percent of their season wrapped up.

A strike might have the power to diminish the Oscars on Feb. 22. Actors would be asked to honor the SAG boycott. This would pose a dilemma for presenters and attendees, although the lines aren't completely clear since the event itself is videotaped, not filmed, and falls under AFTRA, not SAG, rules.

Q. Will there be a strike?

A. Ideologically, SAG has a divided camp, with over 40,000 of its members also belonging to AFTRA.  A strike can’t have much impact on nearly completed shows. And it seems nutty to flirt with anything that drives audiences away in light of how TV ratings have never recovered from the last strike. So the answer’s probably no.

Still, the studios’ use of an economic crisis to generate bad publicity for SAG could backfire. Hollywood bookkeeping is a notoriously flexible concept, and given the WGA’s recent statements that writers still aren’t getting the new-media residuals promised them, SAG may feel more militant.

Q. So which side do I root for?

A. If your goal is to see seasons of "24" more often than 18 months apart, maybe you should send flowers to Kiefer Sutherland beseeching him not to honor his SAG membership.

Others may feel differently. While actors aren’t exactly auto workers or bank tellers, you still may feel there’s no reason for a union to make any concessions after years of management enriching itself.

Then there’s the third approach: The world is full of amusements. You two sides work it out and focus on me, the viewer, or I’ll go find something else to do.

More on SAG

Kay McFadden lives in New York and writes about TV.