Cracks appear as strike talks collapse again

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As settlement talks halted last week in the 5-month-old commercial actors strike, cracks are beginning to appear in advertisers' unified front.

The country's No. 1 advertiser, General Motors Corp., has become more active in pressuring negotiators to settle the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television & Radio Artists strike, said an executive close to the situation. That effort took place before the latest round of talks in mid-September. Others, such as TD Waterhouse, are signing interim agreements.


Negotiators for the advertisers said they anticipated a long strike would force some advertisers to temporarily side with the unions to produce new campaigns.

"I expect some minimal erosion [from advertisers]," said John McGuinn, chief negotiator of the Joint Policy Committee on Broadcast Talent Relations for the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. "I expect some erosion from the unions' side too, with people crossing the line in coming to work."

Discount brokerage service TD Waterhouse will start up a new campaign soon featuring Dennis Miller, the comedian and new "Monday Night Football" quipster, through an interim agreement with the unions. The move was necessary because, executives close to Mr. Miller said, the actor would not break with the unions to film the spots. Mr. Miller also appears in upcoming advertising for Ricoh Corp.'s copiers under a similar, interim agreement (see story below).


TD Waterhouse executives were not available for comment at press time, but before the strike began, the company had used other celebrities -- such as Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, and actors Geena Davis and Jackie Chan -- in TV commercials.

During the strike, several advertisers have made deals under interim agreements with the unions. For instance, the unions claim RadioShack Corp. has made commercials under such agreements with celebrities Howie Long and Teri Hatcher.

GM disputed it has taken a stepped-up role in pushing for a settlement. "[GM] is not an active participant," said Peg Holmes, director of advertising media relations. "We're really trying to be neutral and trying to watch what happens."

Negotiators for the advertisers also dismissed that suggestion. "I'm not aware of anything like that," Mr. McGuinn said. "We had a full Joint Policy Committee that has had advertisers who wanted to work with the unions because they have celebrities. Plus we had advertisers who don't have celebrities. [Yet] there's a unanimous vote against the agreement the union wanted."


Negotiations, which ended Sept. 28 after 12 days of talks, resulted in advertisers revising one of their major positions. Instead of demanding a flat fee for broadcast TV, advertisers offered actors a pay-per-play agreement for broadcast similar to that in the previous contract.

The unions also pulled back on one of their demands, agreeing to a flat fee for cable TV commercials. Previously, the unions had demanded a pay-per-play formula for all broadcast and cable commercials.

But the two sides couldn't agree on actual financial terms for cable. In the last contract, a maximum fee for a 13-week commercial run was $1,000. The committee had proposed cable fees reach a maximum of $1,850 in the third year of a new contract; the unions proposed $2,500 in the third year. "We thought an 85% increase should suffice," Mr. McGuinn said.

Additionally, the unions wanted jurisdiction over how actors would be compensated for Internet campaigns; however, the committee wanted to leave that issue open for discussion. While advertisers agreed to a 90-day cooling off period, something federal mediators who arranged the talks proposed, the unions balked at the idea.

Mr. McGuinn said he expects it will be a least a month before the mediators try to arrange another meeting.


Meanwhile, the actors are turning up the heat with threats of advertiser boycotts.

At last week's star-studded press conference in New York, actress Susan Sarandon said, "I know we are all tired of being squeezed out by these people who say they're not making a profit." After the conference, but before the talks were officially called off, one member of the negotiating team said, "If the talks broke down, I couldn't imagine there would not be a boycott."

Corporate-friendly talk show host Rosie O'Donnell urged SAG members not to think of big business as their enemy. "It's not us against them," she said. "Corporate America makes it possible for many of us to make a living."

Contributing: Jean Halliday, Mercedes M. Cardona, Laura Petrecca

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