Commercial Actors Countdown to a Strike … 10-4 for 90210 and PO5 … Freaks and Geeks Invade TV Museum

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Ronald McDonald may be headed for the picket line. More than 130,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are expected to walk off the job on Monday, May 1. That includes more than 50,000 union actors in New York.

The dispute centers on residual fees–known as “pay per play”–which actors are paid each time an advertisement airs. Union actors want “pay per play” for cable television advertisements, instead of the flat fee they now get. But the advertising industry wants to do away with “pay per play” altogether–even on the broadcast networks, where it is now used–and replace it with an entirely flat-fee system.

Negotiations have broken off, and commercial actors, who have been working without a contract since March 31, are hunkering down for the long, unpaid haul. “I think [the strike] is totally necessary,” said Tom Shillue, a commercial actor in his early 30’s who has starred in spots for everything from Snickers to Heineken. “I’m ready for a long strike.”

This week S.A.G. and AFTRA members began setting up a strike “war room” at the Directors Guild of America building on West 57th Street. In a gray, bare fourth-floor office, they began telephoning members to remind them of the strike date and to organize pickets outside buildings of advertising agency offices.

Members insist the commercial work stoppage–which would be the first since 1988, and does not affect the creative side of the acting trade, known as “legit”–is necessary to counter what they see as the advertising industry’s attempt to roll back wages and divide the union. “This feels like real union-busting,” said Anne Gartlan, a voice-over specialist from Yonkers who was once Madge the Manicurist’s (“You’re soaking in it …”) understudy for Palmolive dishwashing liquid. “They want to carve the heart out of this contract.”

While commercial actors realize they’re a bit flashier than the Teamsters, they’re rankled to be perceived as just another bunch of showbiz greedsters. Some 95 percent of S.A.G.’s membership is unemployed at any time, union staffers said. And the vast majority of them do not command the kinds of starry salaries that make the pages of Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide . Many union actors do commercial work to subsidize their careers in live theater and film, which typically don’t pay the rent.

It’s far from a glam life, actors said. “You go for an on-camera audition and you have to look beautiful and act funny and not be desperate and make them not feel you are going to die if you don’t get this job,” said Liz Zazzi, a commercial actor from Glen Ridge, N.J. “And then you get rejected, rejected, rejected, rejected and then maybe the 20th job interview you go on, you book a radio spot, and it’s 200 bucks.”

Ms. Zazzi said “pay per play” has become a particularly delicate issue as cable networks have grown dramatically over the past decade and a half. When the union’s cable contracts were first developed, cable was but a small piece of the television revenue pie, and it made little sense to pay broadcast rates for cable spots. But with the rise of ESPN, MTV, Discovery and others, actors think they are entitled to more than just a flat fee, which sometimes amounts to just $500 for a 13-week run.

“Every time I see one of my commercials on cable, I do a little math problem in my head and bum out,” said Mr. Shillue. “I think most actors do. You can’t help it.”

Advertising industry representatives counter that it’s broadcast networks that have changed the most, and that it no longer makes sense to do “pay per play” when the major outlets (ABC, NBC, et al.) command only a fraction of the audience they had two decades ago. At the same time, they point to the widening landscape of advertising outlets–cable and the Internet, in particular. Though many of the same commercials air across the spectrum, industry leaders say the multitude of outlets offer additional work opportunities for actors.

That said, industry leaders say they are prepared to weather the strike storm. “Most advertisers want to be able to work through the strike,” said David Perry, the director of broadcast production at advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi. “We are looking at every single commercial on a case-by-case basis.”

Mr. Perry believes that most viewers won’t notice any major changes if a strike occurs. While some advertisers–companies with seasonal products, for instance, or those planning major launches–may be affected by the work stoppage, many others have backlogs of ads that they can use for the short to medium term, he said. “[The public] probably won’t notice anything at all for a long time,” Mr. Perry said. “It would have to be a very protracted strike for them to notice anything different.”

Advertisers said they also plan to use non-union (read: scab) actors. And if the strike extends for a long period of time, advertisers may begin to move production overseas. While advertisers clearly prefer using American talent, they have foreign options ranging from Australia to South Africa to the Czech Republic, said Matt Miller, the president of the New York-based Association of Independent Commercial Producers.

“One of the things that could come back to bite the industry here in the course of this strike is that it’s going to force more and more advertisers and production companies to move overseas that may not have,” Mr. Miller said. Those companies may decide they like working overseas, he said, and stay there.

That’s a risk American commercial actors seem willing to take. “John Q. Public tends to think of people in showbiz or people in commercials as wealthy,” said Ms. Gartlan, a veteran of 25 years in the business. “And you bet there are some. But those streaks really don’t last a long time. And they are even shorter now. I say to people coming into the business, ‘It’s never been easier to get into a commercial; it’s never been harder to sustain a career.'”

Tonight, watch West Wing , one of those broadcast shows that advertisers still covet. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Thursday, April 27

Fox is trying to cope with the departures of Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five , two of the network’s signature shows, both closing up shop next month. For you Bronx Bombers fans, that’s like losing Bernie and Jeter in one collision. “I think we have a challenge ahead of us, said Craig Erwich, Fox’s vice president of drama programming. “Both of these shows were kind of icons of the television landscape in different ways.”

Indeed, in today’s sweaty gym locker of TV teenfare like Dawson’s Creek , Felicity and Popular , it’s almost possible to forget what a bunch of pioneers those brats from Beverly Hills were when they made their debute 10 years ago. TV maestro Aaron Spelling cooked up 90210 as a youthful version of his hit Dynasty , launching a teen-programming revolution. By comparison, 6-year-old PO5 struggled at first, but within a couple of seasons, those handsome Salingers of San Francisco were America’s favorite suffering orphan family. (Over the years, the Salingers have endured cancer, divorce, domestic violence, armed robbery, alcoholism and chronic whining, to name a few afflictions.)

“One of the things that made 90210 successful was there was the fantasy and wish-fulfillment aspect of it,” Mr. Erwich said. “I think people who tuned into Party of Five were really looking for an emotional experience. It’s the same people who want to go to a movie and cry.”

Party of Five wraps up on Wednesday, May 3. 90210 expires May 17. Yes, Mr. Erwich said Fox tried to get Shannen Doherty to come back for the final 90210 . But she ain’t in it. Sorry.

Tonight on Fox, Ghosts: The Best Evidence Ever Caught on Tape . Rumored to contain footage of Shelley Long [Fox, 5, 8 p.m.]

Friday, April 28

Kids Say the Darndest Things . Like, “Que pasa?! What’s with the rifle in my face?” [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, April 29

Of all this year’s prime-time cancellations, few have caused a bigger hullabaloo than NBC’s axing of Freaks and Geeks , a smart 80’s nostalgia trip about the kids who used to sit at the far tables in the high-school cafeteria. The show won some awards and stuff, but the suits at NBC sent it to sitcom heaven, triggering a grassroots viewer campaign to find the show a new home. The campaign even persuaded the Museum of Television and Radio (at 25 West 52th Street) to run five straight nights of Freaks and Geeks episodes from April 25-29, culminating in an all-day marathon on April 29. Freaks and Geeks superfan Garrett Krnich, 21, who helms the fan club (named for one of the show’s characters)–and, who, not surprisingly, loathed high school–can barely contain himself. “I’m probably more of a geek than anything else, but I’ve hung out with the freaks,” Mr. Krnich said. “Everybody’s a freak and geek in one way or another.” Tonight, true freaks and geeks stay in to watch Xena: Warrior Princess . [WPIX, 11, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, April 30

Who says TV isn’t way ahead of the curve? Tonight, NBC premieres the two-part miniseries The 70’s , which was a fab idea for a miniseries like, nine years ago. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Monday, May 1

“Celebrity” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire , which begins this week, features guest appearances by A-listers David Duchovny, Rosie O’Donnell and Drew Carey. But the rest of the lineup is pretty thin: Ray Romano, Vanessa L. Williams, Dana Carvey, Queen Latifah, Kathie Lee Gifford, Emeril Lagasse and Lance Bass from ‘N SYNC. Smells like Hollywood Squares, Reeg! [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, May 2

A couple weeks back, NYTV told you that genial actor-storyteller Malachy Mccourt was on the verge of getting a major role in ABC’s forthcoming sitcom Madigan Men , starring Gabriel Byrne. Mr. McCourt was up for the part of Mr. Byrne’s father, a pretty logical piece of casting, considering that Mr. McCourt, like Mr. Byrne, is authentic Irish, and a fine actor to boot.

Alas, Mr. McCourt told NYTV this week that he didn’t get the part. It went to … an Englishman! Specifically, Roy Dotrice, who happens to be playing alongside Mr. Byrne on Broadway in A Moon For the Misbegotten .

Oh, well. Mr. McCourt thinks Mr. Dotrice is a fine actor and a fine choice. And Mr. McCourt’s sense of humor seems intact. “I’m not on television,” he said before getting off the phone. “I don’t see any point in living.”

C’mon Mr. McCourt, there are plenty of reasons for living! Like tonight’s True Hollywood Stories on E!, which features Fantasy Island ‘s Herve Villechaize, and answers the question of how low E! will go. [E, 24, 9 p.m.]

Commercial Actors Countdown to a Strike … 10-4 for 90210 and PO5 … Freaks and Geeks Invade TV Museum