Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eyes wide shut: Is another strike possible?

Most fans are blithely ignoring the possibility that the prospects for a normal Season 5 may be in jeopardy. In anticipation of the April 24 resumption of the post-WGA-strike episodes of Lost Season 4 in one week, and the recent news that ABC Chief Stephen McPherson has green-lighted the Lost team's request for an additional hour for this installment, most fans are eagerly gearing up to consume more of Lost. Why the worry?

On June 30, the major producer's film-primetime contract with the two actors unions expires. If a new contract isn't signed by that date, the actors are free to strike, and unlike the writers, an actor strike would end production immediately. If a strike does happen this summer, it could potentially impact Lost Season 5, which otherwise would begin filming in the mid August...

In short, that's the scary part, that we might be in for a strike all over again. We don't know if a strike will really happen, but after what happened with the WGA, the fans should know that the long dance to the culmination of this contract has recently begun. Today will mark the third day of official negotiations between Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and producers.

What are the chances for a strike? Well first of all Lost is a SAG production, not AFTRA. The two actors unions were going to negotiate together for added leverage but have a history of bad blood and distrust, and just about 2 weeks ago, AFTRA surprised SAG with a sudden divorce. (link) And just over a week ago, Disney's Bob Iger and News Corp's Peter Chernin ended informal talks with SAG. (link) In case you hadn't paid attention during the last strike, these are the two individuals who single-handedly revived the hopelessly-stalled talks with the writers (WGA) immediately after the directors union (DGA) had inked a deal, and thereby started the chain of events that ultimately brought Lost back to you.

Yeah those guys. And they just essentially gave up on the actors. Thus only two days ago, formal negotiations began between the producers and SAG. (link). The good news is that thus far, both parties are avoiding the public mudslinging that made the writers' talks so spiteful and unproductive. In fact they've made joint announcements that are essentially a news blackout: "Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers held a full day of meetings today and exchanged proposals. We will meet again tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. We have no further comment at this time."(link) Press releases don't get drier than that!

The bad news is that SAG has been publicly unsatisfied with the terms of the recent DGA and WGA deals, a dissatisfaction that Iger and Chernin were apparently unable to budge. SAG head Alan Rosenberg said as much in a letter to his membership (link), although he has been meticulous in denying that he "wants" a strike. The clock is ticking because in two weeks, AFTRA begins its negotiations separately-- and since they are known (for various reasons we won't get into here) to accept more lenient terms than SAG, they may reach an agreement relatively soon after that date. If that happens and SAG doesn't have a contract and later goes on strike, AFTRA could move in on some SAG territory, especially on the digital frontier. That possibility might discourage SAG from striking. But just yesterday, AFTRA also shuffled its leadership in a new vote with five new "dissident" board members who want a more SAG-like stance, so that AFTRA may negotiate harder than previously guessed (link). In that case a return to joint bargaining with SAG and even a joint strike is not absolutely out of the question. The repercussions of the AFTRA board shuffle are not yet clear.

So all in all, nobody wants a strike. But SAG has long been made it clear that it considers the current contract renewal to be a watershed moment, that it wants a revolution in the new media side, and has hinted strongly that using the recent WGA and DGA deals as templates for their own deal may not be adequate. And if the producers don't cave, that means a strike, and a delay to Lost Season 5. Let's hope it doesn't play out that way.

UPDATE 1 (Thurs Apr 24): Negotiations have been extended a week until Fri May 2. (link)
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