SAG Strike Could Spell Disaster for TV

LOS ANGELES Already engaged in deep soul searching following a dismal fall TV season and flatlining ad market, broadcast networks are facing another blow: a potential Screen Actors Guild strike early next year.

SAG’s decision during the weekend to seek a strike authorization from its membership following the breakdown of its negotiations with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers has shifted the once-remote possibility of a SAG walkout much closer to reality.

While its effect would not be as far-reaching as this year’s strike by the Writers Guild of America — a SAG walkout would only affect scripted prime-time fare — it would derail the broadcast season for a second straight year, this time in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

“Everyone is praying that it won’t happen, but the reality starts to sink in that there may be a strike,” one TV studio exec said.

On Monday, TV executives who normally would be embarking on a Thanksgiving vacation were working on contingencies. For now, there are no plans to cancel or shorten the prime-time series’ holiday hiatuses, scheduled for the last two weeks of December, in order to get more episodes in the can.

The bulk of prime-time scripted series will have 60 percent to 75 percent of their episodes completed before they stop for a holiday break and as many as five unaired episodes in various stages of post-production.

Things look better for such returning mid-season series as WGA strike casualty 24 and comedies Rules of Engagement and According to Jim, which will have completed their orders by the end of the year.

Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, in New York to receive the Founders Award at the International Emmys, said it’s “unbelievable” that SAG could be moving toward a strike. “It’s so out of touch with reality,” he said. “Strikes very rarely accomplish what they set out to do, and it is a different situation than the ’40s and ’50s, when certain things had to be achieved.”

Unlike the WGA strike, which crippled every prime-time scripted series as well as daytime dramas and late-night talk shows, a SAG strike would only impact prime-time series. Soaps and variety shows are under the American Federation of Theatrical and Radio Artists’ jurisdiction.

Still, the late-night guest bookings would be thinner since SAG members likely would not participate.

A SAG strike also could further cable’s momentum. The cablers gained ratings ground this year because their series are produced in smaller batches throughout the year and thus were far less affected than those of the broadcast networks. The discrepancy in terms of impact would be even greater this time, as the vast majority of scripted cable series are AFTRA affiliated and won’t be affected at all.

About eight broadcast series are under AFTRA, with five of them freshman shows: 90210, Gary Unmarried and the upcoming Better Off Ted, The Unusuals and Harper’s Island. While the transition from film to digital has been slowly increasing AFTRA’s piece of the prime-time pie, the shift has been more profound this year, which some observers attribute in part to the threat of a SAG strike.

And with such a strike falling smack in the middle of broadcast nets’ pilot production season, more producers of digitally shot pilots may opt to go with AFTRA this year.

Once again, a strike will present talent with a moral dilemma. Last year, it was the showrunners who were torn between their loyalty to the WGA and their contractual obligations to the studios for performing non-writing duties.

This time, it would be the actors with dual SAG/AFTRA membership who would be on the spot. Those who work on AFTRA shows would be obligated to report to work yet urged by SAG not to.