Comfortable stalemate in three-year U.K. ad dispute

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[london] With no settlement of the 5-month-long commercial actors strike in sight, some observers wonder whether a similar situation across the Pond might provide a what-if scenario for the U.S.

Three years after U.K. actors' union Equity fell out with ad agencies and advertisers over voice-over fees, the three groups are still in dispute. Not that you'd know it.

A comfortable stalemate has prevailed since the last three-way meeting of Equity; the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, representing U.K. ad agencies; and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. That was back in April 1999.

There's no new agreement to replace the last one, which was negotiated in 1991 and expired in 1997. And no one seems to care.

The IPA claims in its 1999 annual report that its member agencies are making commercials "with access to all the talent needed" and that a "significant reduction in voice-over fees has been achieved." According to the IPA, 85% of voice-over contracts are now negotiated on a buyout basis, instead of paying the performer a repeat fee each time an ad is shown.

For its part, Equity claims actors are "by and large" managing to negotiate terms similar to those in the 1991 agreement, under which fees were paid based on an ad's ratings.

"Officially, [the dispute] is still out there," said Tessa Gooding, the IPA's head of communications. "But the industry is operating as `business as usual,' and would want [to see] more demonstrable advantages [to having another agreement with Equity]. Agencies are finding it fine not to have one and have managed without one."

The process from flare-up in 1997 to stalemate in 1999 was a gradual one, over the course of five joint industry meetings. "In hindsight, it's very easy to draw conclusions," Ms. Gooding admitted. "We didn't go in not wanting an agreement. I don't think the U.S. can look at the U.K. and say, `This is the way to go.' "

The dispute, which never escalated into a full-scale strike, was triggered by demands by the IPA and ISBA that minimum voice-over session fees, set at around $115 at that time, should be cut by two-thirds. "We set minimum terms and then it's up to actors and agents to negotiate over that," said Equity spokesman Adam Baxter. "In any walk of life, you have to go into negotiations with everything open. And if voice-over actors were getting lots of money, then that was a reflection of their market value."

The IPA says it's not opposed to a new agreement, but is not actively seeking one. Equity's take is slightly different. "They [the IPA and ISBA] won't talk," Mr. Baxter said. "Equity walked away from the negotiations," Ms. Gooding countered. No one at ISBA was available to provide its assessment.

In a country where public transit workers politely announce weeks in advance the date of a potential strike so commuters can make alternate arrangements, the U.K. voice-over clash has always been a civilized dispute.

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