Monday, March 2, 2009

Changing Guilds, Changing Technologies

Most articles discussing the ongoing labor negotiations between the actors' guilds (AFTRA and SAG) and AMPTP (the body negotiating on behalf of the media conglomerates) have focused on the key sticking points in their respective deals. Recently, some journalists have discussed the likelihood that SAG members will shift to being AFTRA members (if they aren't members of both already), since AFTRA has already finalized its agreement with AMPTP. However, these discussions have been framed primarily in terms of economic exigencies.

One topic I don't remember seeing discussed prior to reading this article in The Hollywood Reporter involves the potential technological and aesthetic ramifications of a production opting to go with AFTRA instead of SAG. Yet the labor disputes are leading to precisely these types of shifts. This is the case because television programs adhering to AFTRA guidelines have to be shot digitally. Significantly, since AFTRA has already made its deal with AMPTP, a disproportionate number of upcoming prime time broadcast television series are being shot in accordance with AFTRA, rather than SAG, guidelines.

As this article notes:

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....

A union insider noted that the switch to more AFTRA production is part of a pendulum swing tied to the evolution of the viewers' tastes and the technology employed in television. Most primetime shows in the golden era of multicamera comedy in the 1960s and '70s were under AFTRA because they were done on tape. But as dramas began to dominate schedules and the cost of film went down, SAG began to gain ground.
The entertainment conglomerates' mandate for cost cutting in the face of a recession also contributed to the shift from film to digital. Cost savings from the switch are said to be about $30,000, or 1%-2% of the budget of a drama episode. That is significant given the fact that ABC Studios and 20th TV recently cut the budgets of all of their series by 2% in response to the economic crisis. Still, cost reduction was not as big an impetus for the dramatic shift from film to digital as was the turmoil around SAG.

What makes the transition more palpable for producers is the big advances in the digital technologies that eliminate previous shortcomings like inferior lighting and add advantages including easy digital effects.

It would be interesting to explore further whether -- or to what extent -- a shift from SAG to AFTRA not only changes the two groups' relative sizes and dynamics for the long term, but also substantively alters production practices on an industry-wide basis. Will labor negotiations lead to signficant changes in network TV's aesthetics? Will these changes be evident to many (or any) viewers?

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