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Actors' union president Fran Drescher discusses ongoing strike and future of Hollywood
Geoff Bennett: For the first time in 63 years, actors and writers are striking at the same time, bringing Hollywood movie and TV production to a halt.
The Writers Guild has been on strike since may, and SAG-AFTRA, the union representing TV and film actors, joined them last week after negotiations with studios broke off.
Two of the key issues at the center of these strikes, how streaming and artificial intelligence are upending the industry, affecting income and profits.
We should note, the "NewsHour" is in active negotiations with SAG-AFTRA to represent some of the editorial staff. Broadcast journalists are not covered by the same contract as the actors in SAG-AFTRA currently on strike.
Let's turn now to Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, who joins us now.
Welcome to the "NewsHour."
Fran Drescher, President, SAG-AFTRA: Thank you. Thank you so much. I am a proud supporter of PBS and very happy to be here.
Geoff Bennett: Well, we appreciate that.
Major actors guild strikes are fairly rare, especially recently. And looking back at the contract that was ratified in 2020 by SAG-AFTRA, it was approved by nearly 75 percent of the voting membership. There were wage increases. There were improved residuals or continued payments for video streaming.
Fast-forward to the current moment. What happened? Why was now the right moment to go out on strike?
Fran Drescher: Well, I mean, look, I wasn't in leadership then. I don't know whether I would have been so quick to agree with that contract.
But I think that, at some point, you reach a crossroads. The saturation of streaming and how it's impacted our industry is exponential. And it's really disemboweled the old business model, which is the one that, let's say, for example, "The Nanny" flourished in.
And everybody up and down the ladder benefited by it and made money off of it. To this day, they continue to get money from it. But that is not the case anymore with streaming. And all the programs that are made for the streaming channel, you exist in a box, in a vacuum, and there's no tail of revenue.
And our revenue sharing that was established in 1963, or 1960, when we had the big strike with the WGA, and Ronald Reagan was president of SAG, that business model was predicated off of television that ran as long as there were eyeballs and ad dollars. So, longevity was the name of the game. And that made sense.
But now longevity is not the name of the game. Seasons are very short, three to four, maybe, and then it's over.
Geoff Bennett: Using your example, when you were starring in "The Nanny," that was a season that started typically in September. It ran through May. It was 22 to 24 episodes a season.
Now, on streaming, to your point, a show is lucky if they have 10 episodes a season and they're really lucky if they get a second season. So what does that mean in terms of take-home pay?
Fran Drescher: You can't make a living. The economics have been changed so dramatically that we have to move over into the pocket where the money is. We have to follow the money.
But even within the old structure, even within people working in these limited series, they don't want to raise minimums. So they're expecting my members who earn minimums on their performance to earn less than they did in real money in 2020 all the way through to 2026. They refuse to give us what the economy demands.
Most other labor unions get cost-of-living raises.
Geoff Bennett: We should say we requested interviews with studio heads and with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents film and production companies, all of whom declined.
But they did provide a statement, part of which reads this way: "The deal that SAG-AFTRA walked away from on July 12 is worth more than $1 billion in wage increases, pension and health contributions and residual increases and includes first-of-their-kind protections over its three-year term, including expressly with respect to A.I.," or artificial intelligence.
Why was this deal, as you see it, insufficient? What more are you asking for?
Fran Drescher: First of all, don't believe a word of that. That's the first thing.
The second thing is, because the real question is, you know, those CEOs are making $78,000 a day. And the majority of my members, like nine out of 10 of them, can't even qualify for health benefits that have a threshold of $26,000 a year.
Why would we go on strike if it was such a fantastic deal? Do you think we enjoy being out of work? Don't believe a word that they say. When they offer us a deal, and they say that a background person will get paid for one day is work, we will scan their bodies, and then we can use their likeness in perpetuity, what is going to happen to that background person? He's out of work. He's been replaced by A.I.
That is unacceptable. That's a deal-breaker.
Geoff Bennett: You know the position of the studio chiefs, to include Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, which owns ABC, a number of cable networks and streaming platforms. He makes the case that the union isn't being realistic.
And he does have a point that the business has changed. Linear TV is flatlining. Streaming platforms are not profitable across the board. Viewership habits have changed.
And so what do you — what do you say to that underlying argument, setting aside the messenger, but the underlying message?
Fran Drescher: First of all, how do you insult me by saying they're not profitable when you're sitting there making $50 million a year?
Where does that money come from? Who is — there are people way at the top that are getting richer and richer and richer, and the first place that they look to squeeze is my members. That's wrong. They have to change their culture. They have to start thinking we're in partnership with these people.
Geoff Bennett: Most SAG-AFTRA members, as you mentioned, don't make enough money to meet the SAG-AFTRA threshold to qualify for health insurance.
Given that, how long can these folks stay out on the picket lines? How long will this go?
Fran Drescher: You know, they're the ones that gave a historic strike authorization vote, 97.91 percent. That's how upset they are. That's how marginalized they feel and disrespected.
Listen, most of my members are used to working other jobs. And if we have to, we will. I don't know what they're going to do without us, but we could survive without them if we have to, because, at some point, you have to say no.
Geoff Bennett: Fran Drescher is the president of SAG-AFTRA.
Thank you so much for your time and for your insights. We appreciate it.
Fran Drescher: Thank you. My pleasure.