AFTRA, studios still in talks

Times Staff Writers

After nearly three weeks of negotiations, representatives of Hollywood studios and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists talked into the night Monday, apparently moving closer to a deal on a new prime-time TV contract.

The contract could be modeled on the agreement that in February ended a 100-day walkout by film and television writers, said two people close to the talks who declined to be identified.

Among other things, these people said, the pact under discussion would increase the residual payments actors receive for movies and TV shows sold online and establish a pay structure for programs streamed for free over the Web, a major concern for talent unions as the Internet transforms the way entertainment is delivered.

AFTRA wasn't expected to achieve an increase in DVD residuals, a major issue for the larger, more powerful Screen Actors Guild.

The negotiations could end in a tentative deal as early as today, though people close to the talks cautioned that significant issues had to be resolved, including the volatile matter of how clips of films and TV shows are used online.

Representatives of AFTRA and the studios said they couldn't comment.

Actors have had the right of consent over the use of excerpts from their films and shows since 1960, but during recent negotiations with SAG, the studios argued that continuing that right would tie their hands as they experiment with the new medium.

The clips issue has galvanized moderates and hard-liners alike within SAG, in much the same way that Writers Guild of America members became enraged last year when studios demanded an overhaul of the long-standing system of residuals.

Unlike SAG, AFTRA doesn't represent feature-film actors, and its contract covers only a handful of prime-time TV shows such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Cashmere Mafia."

With 77,000 members, AFTRA represents a diverse group, including recording artists, radio announcers and actors who work in reality TV, soap operas and cable television.

The two unions have traditionally bargained their prime-time film and TV contract together. AFTRA recently broke ranks with SAG, ending a 27-year partnership, after a series of disputes over the terms of their alliance.

SAG has long complained that AFTRA cable TV contracts sell actors short, while AFTRA has said that its deals reflect economic realities and have expanded union jobs.

The bickering has allowed studios to pit one union against another. They pursued a similar strategy last year, establishing a quick deal with directors and using that as leverage against writers.

Given the bad blood, it's not clear how SAG leaders would react to an AFTRA deal, even one that resolved the clips issue.

Studios suspended their talks with SAG this month amid disputes over DVD pay, the use of clips online and which shows created for the Web should fall under the union's contract.

Writers and directors agreed that only shows with budgets of a certain size -- those costing more than $15,000 a minute -- would qualify. SAG contends that would exclude too many existing shows, including more than 400 that already have deals with the union, and create a vast pool of nonunion labor.

SAG leaders have agreed to resume talks Wednesday. The actors' contract expires June 30.


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