Magazine article The Spectator

Silent Voices of Dissent

Magazine article The Spectator

Silent Voices of Dissent

Article excerpt

Actors are not naturally people who believe in hiding their light under a bushel. And television advertising executives have a reputation for being brash and abrasive rather than discreet. Yet the two groups are involved in a highly damaging and costly dispute that has all the makings of a classic saga about which both sides are keeping remarkably quiet. Indeed, the advertising people are saying nothing publicly. Negotiations between them and the actors' union, Equity, are non-existent. There is stalemate.

The basic disagreement is quite straightforward. The advertisers want to cut the fees paid to actors for television voice-over work by as much as 60 per cent. They insist that any talks must be committed to achieving what they have described as a significant reduction to unreasonably high earnings. Equity wants to talk but has, hardly surprisingly, refused to enter into discussions with such a precondition. What other group of workers anywhere in the land, it says, would enter into talks with an agenda to cut wages by two thirds?

The dispute has been rumbling on since April, and Equity claims virtually 100 per cent support from its members in refusing to voice television commercials. The reality is probably rather less than that, but there is no doubt that the action is getting very strong support, even though it is costing actors a lot of money. And the results are already noticeable on screen. Woolworth's is running an animated ad with no actors and no voice, Mars is using Japanese actors, the Halifax human house ad has a poor quality voice-over and others such as Rover, Vauxhall, Sainsbury, Nationwide and Asda are reportedly having serious problems getting the quality of ad that they want.

Equity raised the stakes in September by asking its members to refuse all work in television ads including personal appearances as well as voice-overs - though those already under contract were excluded from that instruction. And an actor such as Tim Pigott-Smith, for example, still has ads going out with his voice on them for Honda and the Ministry of Defence. They were made before the dispute took hold. One actress, Jan Ravens, told me she might lose tens of thousands of pounds if the dispute dragged on, and for bigger names, such as Miranda Richardson, Martin Clunes, John Hurt, Nigel Davenport and Chris Tarrant, their losses could escalate into six figures. The current king of the voice-overs is an otherwise unknown actor called Enn Reitel who one tabloid newspaper had down as earning as much as 3 million a year. Even adjusting for tabloid over-enthusiasm, his potential loss of earnings is frightening. He is keeping very quiet at the moment.

With the advertisers refusing to make any comment all, it is not easy to assess their agenda. They are a grouping of three bodies - the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers and the Advertising Film and Videotape Producers Association - and they are represented by JENG, the Joint Equity Negotiating Group. It is a rather quaint acronym as there has been no negotiating for nine months. However, JENG has made it clear in a Stage newspaper advertisement that it considers the long-term earnings of voice-over artists to be unreasonably high and is determined to reduce them significantly, despite the fact that the artist's fee represents as little as half of 1 per cent of the budget of a television ad.

Interestingly, JENG tried to pull a fast one on Equity just a few days ago. …

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