Actors take up arms over the TV gold rush

Miriam Margolyes has resigned over it. Performers everywhere are arguing about it. And if a deal between their union, the BBC and ITV is signed, there'll be tears over it. What's it all about? Money for old ropey repeats. Mathew Horsman sets the scene, and opposite, actors Tony Booth and Charlotte Cornwell rehearse the arguments
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Actors will tell you they do it for the excitement, the emotional rewards, the adulation, the sheer buzz - but not, assuredly not, for the money. How strange, then, that a controversial pay deal, now the subject of intense, noisy debate in green rooms up and down the country, has so divided the profession.

"Exploitation," thunders one TV actor with 40 years' experience. One of the actors' union's best-known names, Miriam Margolyes, has resigned from the Equity Council and others are venting their fury. This bitchy, gossipy industry hasn't seen a battle quite like it since the last great revolution in broadcasting, the launch of Channel 4 15 years ago.

At stake is a goldmine of BBC and ITV programming, some of it now collecting dust in the vaults of White City and London Television Centre. If a proposed agreement between British Actors' Equity and the two leading broadcasters, the BBC and ITV, goes through, its proponents say Britain's 40,000 actors would get an earnings boost and viewers would see old favourites exhumed from the archival graveyard. They also say that the agreement would bolster the British television industry, and wean viewers away from a diet of cheap US and Australian imports.

Critics warn, however, that Equity members are poised on a slippery slope. Accept this deal, they say, and risk reversing the hard-won gains of the past 30 years. "This deal is shoddy and fruitless," fumed Margolyes, as she tendered her resignation. "Equity has lost its balls."

Given the significance of the agreement, which Equity members are voting on this week by postal ballot, the details are oddly prosaic. The deal would, for the first time, provide a pay framework for programme sales to the emerging cable and satellite markets in the UK.

Fees paid to actors on mainstream television have been based on a "residuals" system since 1961. For every repeat on ITV, billed actors receive 100 per cent of their original fee, for BBC repeats, they receive 80 per cent.

The new cable and satellite deal tosses out residuals in favour of a royalty payment, similar to the system already in place for overseas sales. Actors would get 17 per cent of the price the programme is sold for, rather than a percentage of their original fee. Simple enough, one might have thought, and hardly of earth-shaking importance, given the meagre size of the pay-TV market.

But Equity members are beginning to realise just how big the stakes are. Cable and satellite channels represent a viewing share of just over 8 per cent - not much next to the BBC's 44 per cent, ITV's 40 per cent and even Channel 4's 11 per cent. That is set to change radically, however, as multichannel television takes off.

Until the current deal was negotiated, following two years of painstaking talks, there was no overall framework for cable and satellite repeats. Interim agreements were reached between the union and a handful of channels, including UK Gold, the BBC/Thames TV hits service, allowing repeats of certain popular programmes. A similar arrangement has been agreed for Granada TV's new satellite channels. In each case, fees are based on the residual system, with repeats generating payments of 10 or 15 per cent of the original fee.

In all other cases, broadcasters are obliged to pay the standard residuals, even when they sell programmes to channels with minuscule audiences. As a result, says James Lancaster, head of rights negotiation at the Beeb's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, "sales to the cable and satellite markets are uneconomic. The residuals owed to actors can in some cases exceed the amount the programme is sold for." Result? Hardly any BBC and ITV programmes have found their way on to subscription television.

The BBC and ITV say the deal is good for everyone. So does the Equity Council, which recommended the arrangement by an overwhelming majority. More programmes will be sold, the Council says, generating higher incomes for actors.

So what's not to like? A lot, say the dissenters. For a start, ITV companies themselves are setting up cable and satellite channels. What is to stop them from selling programmes on the cheap to their own subsidiaries, thereby cheating billed actors out of their fair due? "It is impossible to ensure that all sales are at a true market price," says actor Roger Brierley, "and anyone who pretends otherwise doesn't know how the programme market works."

Equity Council sources counter that the agreement takes account of the problem of "non-arm's length sales". An independent arbitrator will be appointed to assess programme sales and to establish whether they are concluded at a "market price".

The dissenters also fear that the royalty system will soon be applied to terrestrial repeats as well. Brierley, who speaks for a vocal group of concerned actors including Tony Booth and Miriam Margolyes, claims that broadcasters want to "dismantle our entire repeat fee structure. Once you lose residuals, you will never get them back."

Royalty arrangements are also criticised because there are no limits on the number of repeats. The programmes can be sold again and again, thereby reducing their value and leading to lower revenues.

Opponents want Equity to return to the bargaining table, and hammer out a new agreement based on residuals. These can be less than the 100 per cent and 80 per cent now in place for terrestrial television, in recognition of the secondary market's small size. But the principle must be enshrined.

The BBC and ITV hope desperately that the deal will go through, allowing them to exploit their rich libraries. They have even sweetened the offer by agreeing to contribute to an actors' pension fund if members approve the arrangements. But the dissenters will not be silenced. There is a better way forward they say, that does not sacrifice the residual principle. The battle is joined.

Vote against this shabby package

Lauren, Let me tell you what an important part residuals have played in my life. The Equity Council of 1961 persuaded the, as usual, reluctant managements that artists deserved a just reward for their labours and residuals were born. You my daughter were still a distant glint in my eye and I had just made my TV debut.

I well recall receiving my first residual cheque; it just about turned the lousy fee I was forced to take into a fair rate for the job.

Over the years that followed, residuals played an important part in our lives. Many's the time they have staved off the tax man, the bank manager, and even helped to make yours and your sisters' lives a little easier. Like the time you wanted to go on a school skiing trip. Why do school trips always come at the most inconvenient time for parents? Just when all seemed lost and you'd be the only child missing out, good old residuals came through, making you and the bank manager happy.

But you should have seen the face of the latest in that long line of bank managers we thespians collect when I took a royalties cheque in - all pounds 10.94 of it (for Heartbeat, including pounds 7.42 for Canada, pounds 2.51 for a Swedish cable company and 32p for New Zealand).

Two days later, no kidding, a residual for less than one minute, based on a 1960s fee, turned in pounds 26.40. See the difference? Two years ago management made an opening offer of 17 per cent in these negotiations. The union is recommending acceptance of a final offer of ... 17 per cent. This figure is then divided between the cast. Some negotiating achievement!

The proposed new pension deal sweetener is only available, on last year's figure, to less than 20 per cent of the membership. As yet we have no date for starting this great new scheme. We shouldn't "negotiate" our future away so carelessly. An actor friend of mine in his seventies recently got a surprise pension enhancement of pounds 90,000 from residuals down to Channel 4's re-run of The Avengers.

The satellite and cable companies are for the most part subsidiaries of the major terrestrial companies: it's a fixed market. No wonder they want us to accept royalties. Little wonder our agents are against the new deal. This proposal not only sells actors down the river; it betrays the widows, partners and next of kin, the retired and the ill. This last consideration is particularly acute given the ravages of HIV/Aids in our society.

The royalties lobby, aided and abetted by those with extensive media interests, suggest that a vote against the new deal will lead to the destruction of the union. But the opposite is the case. The star players would not accept it, but would negotiate their own deals through lawyers and accountants in the American way. The poor bloody infantry that make up the greater part of the Equity membership would be starved out.

We are not alone in this struggle. Workers all across the industry, writers, technicians, production staff, are all under attack. They and their agents understand the simple truth that members will lose money by this proposal from cable and satellite companies who are still managing to turn in huge profits by repeating more old programmes instead of developing new ones. So this deal invites us to score not one but two own goals.

I trust as you walk out on to the set of your first major film, Hemingway, to be made by that terrific director Richard Attenborough, a member of the 1961 Equity Council that introduced the best deal the union ever negotiated, that you and your generation will join with the majority of my generation and decide to vote against this shabby package.

TONY BOOTH

We don't want endless imports

Since the birth of cable and satellite television in Britain I have been concerned about the amount of imported programmes shown. I believe that British audiences would rather see British material than the endless re-runs of American and Australian imports. One of the most important aspects of the ballot taking place among Equity members is that it will unlock the vast libraries of quality British programmes sitting in the vaults of the television companies. Most of these programmes would never see the light of day again on the main television channels, but the cable and satellite networks will bring them to new audiences and rediscovered popularity may even mean an eventual main channel repeat. The release of these programmes will benefit British audiences and will certainly benefit British performers.

The ballot is not about an issue of principle between royalties and residuals. It is about the right system of payments for the use of programmes on UK cable and satellite channels. While residuals remain the only acceptable system for repeats on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, royalties are the only realistic system for this new world of hundreds of small channels.

The principle I believe should be defended is that performers must receive in perpetuity a payment for the use of their work. This is not the case elsewhere in the world. In Australia and several European countries performers receive nothing for the use of their work on cable and satellite and in America, after a certain number of repeats, payments to performers stop.

We no longer live in a world of four television channels. The cable and satellite explosion has happened. There are now more than 20 television channels in the UK and the market is predicted to grow to more than 150 by the end of next year. We can't live in the past. The question is not whether anybody likes these new channels or not - the reality is that they are here, growing, and are not going to go away.

We have got to be in there making the very best agreements possible. As a working actor and someone who has been an active part of the negotiations over the past two years, I believe this is what we have done.

Equity members are being offered a deal that means that whenever their work is shown on a UK cable and satellite channel they will get a fare share of the sale price. Independent monitoring of the sale prices has been agreed with the television companies. This is crucial in ensuring there are no under-the-table deals.

If the cable and satellite market grows and there is an increase in the level of competition among the channels, the sale prices of programmes will be pushed up and the size of the pot shared by performers will get bigger. Experience shows that is exactly what happened when Equity changed to a royalty system of payments for overseas sales. The overall amount of money going to performers is now greater than it would have been under the old residual system.

But nobody knows precisely how these markets are going to take off. It has therefore been crucial that Equity secures short-term agreements so that the growth of the market can be monitored. If at the end of the initial two-year period we see that performers' interests are not being best served, we will be in a position to renegotiate the entire agreements, not just the headline figures. We could even tear them up, but at least we would be in a position to do so. Without any agreements we are powerless.

CHARLOTTE CORNWELL

Comments