Early curtain for this strike

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Barring a welcome settlement, the actors strike against advertisers is now entering its third week. Weeks of further stalemate will be disruptive to marketer plans, and costly to union members. With no overriding non-economic issues, money is the issue. Both sides need to cut to the cash questions and not let this drag on.

Much is made over the two sides' rival proposals for changing the present two-track structure -- one for network TV work, another for cable TV -- under which actors are paid. It's a system that has one foot in the TV world of the '50s, a world long gone, and both sides would benefit from going back to the drawing boards and designing a pay plan that better fits the times. But even the outmoded present structure would work if the payment schedules were changed so that actors could see there were getting a respectable pay hike.

As the strike began, advertisers were saying their proposals for a comprehensive new flat-fee payment system for both network and cable TV would give actors at least a 5% pay increase per commercial. In a still booming marketer economy, where advertisers without blinking have agreed in recent years to double-digit annual increases in the cost of TV time, 5% more for the human talent in commercials is unlikely to impress many strikers.

A better pay offer, however, should bring with it a willingness by the union to commit to a new system -- now or in the very next contract. Leaving aside celebrities, relatively few commercial actors get substantial income from advertising work. As an industry, however, some estimates put advertiser payments to Screen Actors Guild members for commercial work at about $720 million a year. That's a significant expense and one advertisers and agencies must prudently manage.

Still, let's not lose sight of the valuable working partnership that exists between those who advertise and the many who lend their acting talents to that enterprise. Some employers no doubt would prefer a non-union world. But having a pool of skilled acting talent available when advertisers and agencies need it can be taken for granted. Wages help determine the depth and quality of that pool. Settle on a pay raise and get on with the business of making ads.

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