Union deal may unlock treasure trove of old TV

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Equity, the actor's union, is to soften its policy on charging high fees for television repeats in a move which could free a vast catalogue of programmes on to satellite and cable networks.

The agreement to explore a formula for unlocking the archives was described yesterday by a leading ITV director as a "crucial" development.

Few British-made popular programmes are given repeat slots at present because of the high costs of doing deals with Equity. This has meant, as the union acknowledges, that most new channels become dependent on imports from the United States and Australia.

Lower rates would help the BBC, which has one of the world's largest drama and film archives. Many have been mothballed because of the cost of repeats. The BBC and ITV companies will now be able to exploit these archives in secondary markets, notably in the US.

The satellite and cable operators are opposed to a repeats deal struck in 1992, by BBC Enterprises and Thames Television, which they regard as far too generous. This was negotiated in a hurry, in order to launch UK Gold, the satellite service which shows repeats.

UK Gold, the Astra channel in which both the BBC and Thames Television have shareholdings, adopted a system of residual payments under which actors are paid a percentage of their original fee, either 10 per cent or 20 per cent, depending on the number of screenings and length of "window".

For example, if an actor was originally paid £1,000 for a performance, he or she would get either £100 or £200. Other operators privately describe the deal as "daft".

Several other channels, the Family Channel and UK Living, have struck a few deals for programmes such as The Darling Buds of May and Brookside, along similar, if somewhat cheaper, lines.

At a special Equity policy conference last month, union officials were given the authority to look at other ways of payment, crucially a licensing agreement. If this switch takes place actors will be paid a percentage of the programme sales price. In other words, payment would reflect the value of the deal struck, not the cost of hiring the stars.

An Equity spokesman said the agreement to exploratory talks had been affected by a "very persuasive" independent report produced by the research group, London Economics, which said that actors would be better off under a royalty system by between two and 10 times.

This is because even if the initial price was lower, more programmes would be released on a regular basis. It would also enable new channels to establish themselves, improve their financial performance and lead to more original commissions.