Just as your favorite TV show is emerging from reruns, Hollywood seems to be sinking into one. Blustery union bosses, hard-line demands, and painful-sounding phrases like ”DVD residuals”: The town is bracing for another potential strike — this time by the actors. On March 29, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (which represents soap opera actors and a few prime-time shows, including Fox’s ‘Til Death and CBS’ Rules of Engagement) and the Screen Actors Guild (which represents pretty much everyone else) essentially broke up. The two unions have worked together for nearly three decades to hammer out their TV and film contracts but will go at it alone in the coming months. You’d need an advanced degree in labor law to predict how this will all play out, but common sense dictates that two separate negotiations could be stickier than one. ”I wish it hadn’t gone down like that,” says George Clooney, who publicly urged SAG to begin talks in February. (At press time, they announced they’ll start on April 15; the TV guild still hadn’t announced a date.) ”I think there is safety and strength in numbers.”
The brouhaha comes at an especially precarious time for TV networks. Most scripted shows are now returning to finish their shortened seasons, and an actors’ walkout around the time their contract expires (June 30) could hobble the fall season. And all the extra planning in the world may not help: Even if shows stay in continuous production through the end of June, one studio president thinks his series wouldn’t have more than three or four episodes ready for fall ’08. For cost-saving purposes, some are doing just that: Fox’s Bones is trying to stockpile extra segments, while newcomers like ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money and Private Practice — which had their post-strike returns pushed until the fall — could resume production by May to get a head start. And the status of new banner projects like J.J. Abrams’ Fringe, starring Joshua Jackson, and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse would be anybody’s guess — Dollhouse hasn’t even filmed its pilot episode yet.
As with the writers, the unions and studios will most likely spar over increased DVD residuals and profits from Internet streaming, and with SAG president Alan Rosenberg taking a hard line, many actors are getting nervous. ”There aren’t that many movies out there right now,” says Rainn Wilson, who doesn’t have a gig lined up during The Office‘s summer hiatus. ”People don’t want to start stuff and then get caught in the middle of another strike.” Adds Clooney, ”It destroys this town when work comes to a halt. We cannot afford another strike this year.” Amen, brother. — Additional reporting by Carrie Bell and Lynette Rice