Broadcast Pilots Flying to AFTRA

With SAG still reeling from an internal power struggle and engaged in protracted contract negotiations with producers, AFTRA is making big gains on its rival actors union in prime-time television.

Once the odd man out during broadcast networks’ winter pilot season with an occasional multicamera pilot, AFTRA is dominating the field this year with at least 50 of the 70-plus broadcast pilots to be produced coming under its jurisdiction.

If the trend continues, it could increase AFTRA’s clout in the TV biz at SAG’s expense, and it will give a shot in the arm to digital production because AFTRA projects are required to be shot on means other than film.

What caused the seismic shift between the two unions was the uncertainty surrounding SAG’s talks with AMPTP and the threat of a SAG strike.

“SAG didn’t have a contract, and given the choice, it made much more sense to go with AFTRA,” a studio topper said.

Two studios — 20th TV and Sony TV, which has a long-standing relationship with AFTRA — are doing all of their pilots this year under AFTRA. For others, such as Warner Bros., Universal and ABC Studios, the portion of AFTRA pilots is more than 70 percent.

That is way up from a handful of AFTRA pilots in spring 2008 — mostly CW dramas and a few comedies including CBS/ABC Studios’ Gary Unmarried, which went to series. Back then, there were only a couple of hourlong projects at the Big Four networks done under AFTRA, including presentations Ny-Lon and Harper’s Island at CBS. Now SAG-repped projects are the exception.

While doing high-end dramas on anything but film had been long considered inconceivable, some of the biggest drama pilots this season are being shot on 24p digital video under AFTRA.

Both Jerry Bruckheimer pilots — his detective show for ABC and Miami Trauma for CBS — and David E. Kelley’s new dramedy series Legally Mad for NBC are under AFTRA, as are ABC’s sci-fi thriller Flash Forward and Romeo-and-Juliet drama Empire State; Fox’s comic-book adaptation Human Target, directed by feature helmer Simon West; and The Da Vinci Code-style action adventure Masterwork.

High-profile single-camera comedies, once a SAG domain, also are moving. NBC’s Amy Poehler comedy Parks and Recreation and Fox’s remake of Absolutely Fabulous are shot digitally and affiliated with AFTRA this year.

Deciding which actors union to go with is up to the pilot’s producers and director. But once past the pilot stage, the decision is permanent, translating the union affiliation to the potential series.

The speed of the shift from SAG to AFTRA parallels the stages of SAG’s labor dispute with the studios during the past year.

After starting off with several AFTRA pilots last spring, the process accelerated during the summer, with a larger portion of the midseason pilots such as Fox’s Boldly Going Nowhere and Eva Adams and almost all ABC comedy pilots, including single-camera Better Off Ted, The Unusuals, Never Better and Roman’s Empire, shot under AFTRA.

The trend moved into high gear in November when talks between SAG and the studios broke off and SAG announced that it would proceed with a strike-authorization vote.

WBTV and 20th TV issued almost identical statements, saying that “in response to the uncertainties created by a potential SAG strike,” they were considering shooting their spring pilots as digital productions under AFTRA agreements.
Several studio and AFTRA sources stressed that going AFTRA does not save the studios money, as the switch does not mean actors are getting cheaper deals than those they would get through SAG under the same circumstances.