Actors, Advertisers Talk Tough
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ When Americans were tied to their TV sets for news of the Persian Gulf War, they also were endlessly bombarded with a motel commercial featuring actress Liz Zazzi.
``I was on CNN every day, all during the Gulf War,″ Zazzi recalls. ``A friend called me up and said, ’You’re so cute, I see you on CNN every morning. You must be SO rich.‴
Wrong, says the New York actress. Because performers receive a flat fee for ads running on cable, Zazzi earned about $500 for an unlimited 13-week showing of the 1991 spot.
Now it’s union actors like Zazzi and the ad industry who are at war: Advertisers want to extend flat-fee payments to broadcast network commercials, which currently earn residuals for performers each time the spot airs.
Actors, in turn, are seeking to expand ``pay-for-play″ to cable spots. The result is a 10-week-old strike by the 135,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
The dispute has been marked by charges and countercharges of unfair labor practices, allegations of racial insensitivity and economic losses for Los Angeles and New York as nonunion ad production is driven to lower-profile areas.
Athletes including Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal, whose commercial work requires their membership in SAG, have been pulled into the fray. Richard Dreyfuss and other stars have lent their fame to the cause of the mostly anonymous commercial performers.
Each side has claimed its share of success since the May 1 strike began.
Advertisers insist their ability to produce spots has been unaffected by the walkout because of the availability of nonunion performers.
``The industry produced 862 commercials from May 15 to June 15, the same level as if there was no strike,″ said attorney Ira M. Shepard, representing the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers.
``If the industry can do that, notwithstanding strikes and picketing and yelling and screaming, it isn’t good news for the union,″ Shepard said. ``Eventually, they’ve got to figure we can do it without them. I’d much rather do it with them.″
The guilds point to their disruption of nonunion commercial shoots via protests and contend they have weakened the industry’s unity through interim agreements.
Bypassing major ad agencies in favor of smaller firms willing to sign interim pacts has allowed Pepsi and other companies to quietly make union commercials during the strike, SAG and AFTRA claim in trade paper ads running Friday.
On another front, the unions maneuvered Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury unit into suspending ad production during the strike.
Ford’s decision came after SAG-AFTRA accused the company of darkening the face of a nonunion, white stunt driver so he appeared black in a commercial featuring black actors _ a notorious, outdated practice called a ``paint down.″ Ford denied the allegation.
The guild assertion that dozens of major advertisers are making union ads through interim agreements was dismissed by Shepard as ``baloney.″
``While it’s conceivable some could sign, that doesn’t lessen the solidarity of the vast majority. Nor does it mean the industry is going to change its bargaining position,″ he said.
Union leaders were talking tough as well.
``We’re applying pressure to the advertisers in ways they’ve never seen SAG-AFTRA do before,″ said Todd Amorde, chairman of the union’s strike committee. ``We intend to escalate that; we haven’t even begun to give them our best shot.″
The actors’ guilds _ energized by the new leadership of SAG president William Daniels of ``St. Elsewhere″ and ``Boy Meets World″ _ have been capitalizing on union ties.
``Never before have we worked so closely with the AFL-CIO; they are helping us to make alliances with other unions,″ Amorde said, adding that pressure from the United Auto Workers helped gain the Ford agreement. At issue is money and respect, actors say.
The ``pay-per-play″ residuals bring actors roughly $50 to $120 each time a spot airs on network television, in addition to the minimum $478 they get for a day’s production work. For cable TV spots _ which now represent about two-thirds of all ads made _ the flat fee is $1,000 or less for each 13-week run.
``I want to be fairly paid for my distinctive contribution,″ said actor Todd Susman of Los Angeles, who plays a grouchy, tutu-wearing tooth fairy in an electric toothbrush ad and does other TV and radio spots.
``The advertising industry is boasting about record profits and they come to the table offering us pay cuts,″ Amorde said. Pre-sales of network commercial time for the upcoming fall TV season reached a record $8.2 billion, a 15 percent increase over 1999, and cable and syndication ``upfront″ sales also rose significantly.
But unions are distorting the picture, advertisers say. They argue that the changing television landscape has made current residuals obsolete in any economy.
The fee structure dates from the 1950s and ’60s, when ABC, NBC and CBS claimed virtually all the TV audience. Now, six networks fight for 50 percent of the audience, while cable and satellite channels claim the rest.
``It makes no economic sense in the television environment in the year 2000 to pay each time a commercial is used,″ said Shepard. ``We sorely need a modernization of the contract.″
The industry’s offer, which it characterizes as a ``residual guarantee″ of $4,202 for an ad’s 13-week unlimited network and cable commercial run, represents a hefty 37 percent increase for at least half of SAG members, he said.
Union officials scoff at the proposal, saying the boost in the fee actors would receive for cable ads is offset by the elimination of network pay-for-play. ``It’s really taking money from one pocket and putting it in another,″ SAG spokesman Greg Krizman said.
The unions also are seeking jurisdiction over ads made for the Internet and a monitoring system to ensure actors are receiving proper residuals.
In a bid to revive negotiations that stopped in April, federal mediators have scheduled informal talks with both sides July 20 in New York.
The strike and its outcome are being closely watched by more than commercial performers. Next year, contracts will be renegotiated for TV and film actors in SAG as well as for the Writers Guild of America.
``We have to do well because there will be repercussions within the industry,″ said SAG president Daniels. ``I think that’s why we’re getting so much recognition and as much help as they can give us.″
The ad industry asserts the unions are missing an opportunity.
``We’ve attempted to raise the minimum wage to more than $4,000 for one day of work,″ Shepard said. ``Nobody can say that is a rollback and, if they don’t think it will help them in future negotiations, they’re not connecting the dots.″
On The Net: http://www.sag.org.
American Association of Advertising Agencies: http://www.aaaa.org.
Association of National Advertisers: http://www.ana.net.
Elsewhere in television ....
GLORIOUS GLORIA: Gloria Reuben, memorable as nurse Jeanie Boulet on ``ER,″ has made herself over as a backup singer for Tina Turner. Her transformation is detailed in ``VH1 Rock & Roll Fantasy: Gloria Reuben,″ which follows her through her stage debut with Turner at this year’s Super Bowl pre-game show and rehearsals for what Turner has billed as a farewell tour. The show debuts 10:30 p.m. Eastern Friday (July 7).
Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber``at``ap.org.