Equity deal set to release classic programmes from TV vaults

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Equity, the actors' union, yesterday backed a controversial new payments deal for cable and satellite networks , which is expected to unlock the vast BBC and ITV archives for screening on subscription TV services.

Broadcasters predicted that many old and once-popular programmes from the BBC and ITV vaults would at last begin to replace the steady diet of imports from Australia and the US, which has dominated cable and satellite schedules in part because of the lack of a deal with Equity.

The agreement, which will lead to a royalty payments system set at 17 per cent for the sale of BBC and ITV programmes to the so-called secondary market, was approved by a margin of two to one in a postal ballot. It covers pay channels such as Sky Television, UK Gold and the new Granada Plus service, which will feature repeats of such series as Coronation Street and Cracker.

The result was a victory for the council of British Actors' Equity, which negotiated the deal with the two leading broadcasters, and which campaigned vigorously to convince members to back it.

A vocal minority had fought to reject the deal, warning that a royalty payment, based on a percentage of the amount for which programmes are sold, would not be as lucrative as the traditional "residuals" system, which guarantees set payment for all repeats, based on the original fee paid to billed actors.

The minority argued that the BBC and ITV might be encouraged to sell programmes at less than market rates to cable and satellite channels that the broadcasters themselves control. This, it was claimed, would cheat actors. Two ITV companies have already launched pay-TV channels, and several more are poised to do so.

But as part of the deal, Equity, the BBC and ITV have promised to abide by the decisions of an independent arbiter in the event of any disagreement about the true market value of a programme sale.

Ian McGarry, general secretary of Equity, said: "The agreements will enable the BBC and ITV companies to sell their archive and new programming to the growing UK cable and satellite market, which up until now has been almost totally dominated by foreign imported programming."

To sweeten the deal for members, the BBC and ITV have also agreed to contribute to a new pension scheme for actors, and will increase the minimum fees it pays for programming on the main channels.

The Equity Council is expected to start negotiations with Pact, the independent producers' association, to reach a deal on payments for repeats.

Mr McGarry conceded that the vote had been divisive, and moved quickly to heal the wounds. "I know that some members were reluctant to accept a royalty system," he said. "But I can assure them that the new agreements will produce significant additional earnings."