This month's strike by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists could lead to a further reduction in the use of union talent by direct response television producers.
The organizations are striking against producers who make commercials that are under three minutes because they think actors earn too little from spots shown on cable TV compared with over-the-air broadcasts.
Sources within the organizations said the strike appears to have led to the extension of the separate AFTRA contract between infomercial producers and actors beyond its June 30 expiration date to Aug. 30.
SAG, however, sent notices to infomercial producers informing them that its current contract will expire, as expected, July 3.
SAG and AFTRA have completely separate policies regarding infomercials. SAG considers infomercials to be “long-form commercials” while AFTRA tags them as “programming.” This may account for the discrepancy in handling the new contract. But it also may be the key to understanding why the organizations, which are moving together against commercial producers, would split ranks when it comes to infomercials.
Chris Brockmeyer, executive assistant in charge of television/nonbroadcast at AFTRA, would not confirm or deny that the strike has affected the infomercial contract, but other sources within the organizations have said the contract could be extended, leaving AFTRA time to reposition its stance on infomercials and consider them “long-form commercials.”
Joan Greenspan, who is SAG's executive in charge of industrial and infomercials, also reserved comment on whether the strike would cause SAG to increase its fee for infomercial producers who use union talent on the “long-form commercials,” which are shown primarily on cable.
Both contracts are arranged solely by the organizations with no negotiations. Infomercial producers either accept the unions' contract as is or they use nonunion talent. Commercial contracts, in contrast, can be negotiated through collective bargaining. For infomercials, the only exception is in the case of superstar talent, such as Suzanne Somers, Christie Brinkley and Chuck Norris, who negotiate separate contracts and earn more money.
However, according to professionals in the DRTV industry, a move by AFTRA to reposition its infomercial stance and an increase in pay for both SAG and AFTRA talent would cause the few DRTV producers who use union talent to do so less frequently. Currently, the use of nonunion talent is the norm in the industry, which historically has placed products and presentation above talent, especially when that talent can put a stranglehold on a successful production.
“If, as a production company, we were responsible for paying SAG 'Class-A royalty' for every actor or actress, speaking or nonspeaking, no matter how long or to what extent they appear in a commercial or infomercial, then clients and/or producers would not be able to operate,” said Sullivan Productions CEO Anthony Sullivan, who works as both an on-camera host and as a producer. “The royalty expense would be more than the entire budget for the shows.”
Jeff Meltzer, president of Jeff Meltzer Editorial and its DRTV arm, Go Direct TV, said the reason infomercial producers use nonunion talent more often than union talent lies within the separate contract itself.
“They get a flat rate for 13 weeks with no residuals,” he said. “After the 13 weeks (are) up, you have to renegotiate. It takes the leverage out of the advertisers' hands after the 13 weeks because if it is going to run again, it means most likely it's successful. The actors are going to start asking for more. It's not ideal because if the thing rolls out successfully and stays on the air past 13 weeks, they can be held up by an actor who decides [he or she is] going to charge through the nose for it.”