The Lost Decade: SAG/AFTRA and Commercials

Last week, SAG/AFTRA in New York held a special caucus for commercial performers. My understanding of the meeting was for working actors to hopefully come up with ideas to resurrect lost work and wages. I think the overall idea was excellent, but I believe there are too many false narratives about changes in the industry and I wanted to add some thoughts.

On-Camera Actors Were The First Casualty

For years and years, there were actors who were known in the business as commercial actors. 99% of these actors lived in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and they made their living doing SAG/AFTRA on-camera and/or voice-over work. Somewhere in the last 10-20 years, the majority of commercial actors working solely on-camera were no longer making a living. Strategic ad buying as well as diversified casting spread the money out dramatically, and on-camera actors were the first casualties in the commercial evolution.

While on-camera work was drying up, commercial voice-over was still consistent, but that has changed dramatically as well. While the same factors (strategic ad buying, diversity) applied, technology really skewed the new paradigm.

Technology Changed Everything

First, came Protools and other digital audio suites, which leveled the skills of audio engineers. As a result, ad agencies no longer needed to spend weeks in the “big city” mixing their spots when someone locally would do. Without the recording studios acting as a hub, actors did not need to be in NYC, LA and Chicago either, and local actors like local engineers became more common.

Second was the advent of advanced graphics. The graphics revolution has led to less and less live action shoots, which obviously has affected on-camera but has also created a dramatic shift away from voice-overs. Whether title cards, animation or CGI, graphics have completely changed commercial story telling. Check out this Coca-Cola ad from 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2nBBMbjS8w). With the exception of the announcer in the beginning, there were likely no voice-actors in the entire piece. As animation has become cheaper, these kinds of spots have been produced more and more often, and voice-over jobs have slowly waned in conjunction.

The third factor was online casting. Voicebank opened the door for every ad agency in the country to initially have efficient access to thousands of mostly union performers. Voice123 and voices.com then allowed smaller ad agencies and production companies to audition mostly non-union actors for their work.

Decentralization

The key result of all three technologies is that talent can be located anywhere. In fact, because so many people work from home, being located outside certain crowded urban areas has distinct advantages in both audio quality and cost of living.

SAG/AFTRA has suffered with decentralization as well because the union’s incentives to join (wage floor, health care and pension) are no longer as important. For instance, the wage floor (scale) is great but reflects life in the larger cities. Significant portions of the US do not need scale to sustain a reasonable lifestyle, leaving no incentive to push for union wages. The Affordable Care Act has also created issues, as voice performers no longer need to worry about completely losing heath care if they work non-union.

Finally, decentralization has led to more and more work being done in Right-to-Work states. Check out this map at the top. The states in green are Right-to-Work states. Performers from any of those states can work on union jobs without ever being compelled to join while still being paid the same and afforded the same rights as union members.

So, is there a solution to any of these factors? It’s hard to say, but I am interested to hear any opinions outside New York, Chicago and LA on how SAG/AFTRA can serve them better.

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