For the first time, favourites such as Howard's Way or Trainer could find their way on to subscription channels, providing extra revenue for the BBC and ITV and generating fresh funds for members of the closed-shop union of actors.
But vocal opposition by a handful of Equity board members could swing sentiment against the deal, according to union insiders. The character actress Miriam Margolyes last week resigned over the issue.
Four other board members, including Tony Booth, star of Til Death Do Us Part voted against recommending the contract to members, compared to 27 in favour.
If approved, the deal will give starring actors 17 per cent of gross income from any programme sale, rather than the traditional "residual payment" - a fixed percentage of their original remuneration - which will continue to be used for repeats on terrestrial television. Each actor's share of the gross income would be proportional to their original fee, with the minimum set at pounds 50.
According to both the BBC and ITV, the residual model has made it nearly impossible to sell programming to secondary markets at an economic rate. "The residual can sometimes be more than the market price for programmes sold to cable and satellite," said a BBC insider.
This is particularly true of programmes featuring a large cast. If all actors receive a fixed percentage of their original, the total can "far exceed what the programme rights are worth in the secondary market," James Lancaster, rights negotiator at BBC Worldwide, the BBC's commercial arm, said.
The BBC has already had trouble making money on its UK Gold service, which features repeats from the BBC and Thames libraries, despite the channel's commercial success.
The BBC said last night: "The current situation makes programme sales to UK cable and satellite channel's uneconomic. There is no doubt that a yes vote for royalty payments is in the best interests of Equity members, UK viewers and British broadcasters."
Ms Margolyes and her colleagues accuse Equity of abandoning the best interests of its members. They claim that rejecting the residual arrangements will reduce the amounts artists receive from the secondary market in the future, and puts at risk the system that protects artists from exploitation.
"Some of our members look back and say: `wasn't it nice when we had just four channels, and we knew where we stood and what we would receive'," a spokesman for Equity said.
"But this is a forward-looking deal.We should not be in the business of preventing the work of our members from being broadcast widely on cable and satellite."
The result of nearly two years' negotiation, the deal is similar to the arrangements already used by the BBC in its overseas markets, which generate about pounds 17m a year for Equity members. The results of the ballot should be announced on 16 July.
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