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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The smaller of Hollywood's two performers unions reached a tentative deal with studios on Wednesday for a new prime-time TV contract, setting the stage for the more militant Screen Actors Guild to renew labor talks with producers.
The deal between the major studios and the 70,000-member American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA, capped 17 days of negotiations stretching back to May 7, a day after separate talks with SAG, which represents 120,000 actors, hit a stalemate.
The contracts for both unions expire June 30, and Hollywood has been nervous that the actors might go on strike, paralyzing the entertainment industry much as a 100-day walkout by screenwriters did earlier this year.
The industry already is in de facto strike mode, with studios starting to stockpile TV episodes and unwilling to launch work on movies that could be affected by a walkout.
But the tentative accord announced between AFTRA and the studios' bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, raised hopes again that labor peace in the world's entertainment capital might yet be preserved.
SAG has not sought the authorization of its members to call for a work stoppage.
Highlights of the settlement outlined by AFTRA included provisions it said would preserve performers' consent for the use of their TV clips as online entertainment -- an issue that had emerged as a major stumbling block for both actors unions.
However, AFTRA said the exact "mechanism" by which actors would give or withhold consent for existing TV content remains to be ironed out by the two sides, presumably in future talks. Consent for Internet play of excerpts of future TV shows would be bargained "at the time of original employment."
The deal also includes increases in the "residual" payments earned by actors from Internet downloads of TV shows and for online streaming of those programs, as well as higher wages for work in traditional media.
The new-media provisions follow the pattern of terms contained in labor deals negotiated by the studios earlier this year with Hollywood directors and writers, AFTRA said.
But there was no mention of provisions to raise residual fees from the sale of DVDs -- a key demand of SAG at the outset of its labor talks in April and one that the studios have staunchly resisted.
Another potential deal-breaker for SAG in the AFTRA accord would exempt studios from paying residuals on original made-for-Internet shows that fall below certain production costs -- $15,000 per minute or $500,000 per series.
Still, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon hailed the deal as a "groundbreaking agreement," adding, "This is a challenging time in the entertainment industry and this was a tough negotiation."
The producers alliance said it would now look "to building on the foundation laid during our first round of SAG talks." The studios broke off those negotiations on May 6, saying progress had been "thrust into reverse" by "unreasonable demands" of the union.
It remains to be seen whether AFTRA's deal might undercut SAG's bargaining position or form the basis of a settlement with the larger union, which resumed negotiations with producers on Wednesday morning as previously planned.
SAG President Alan Rosenberg, elected in 2005 on a pledge to take a tougher stance in labor talks than his immediate predecessor, said his negotiators needed to "analyze and evaluate" the AFTRA accord before forming an opinion on it.
AFTRA's contract governs actors' employment on a handful of prime-time shows, accounting for a small piece of the Hollywood labor pie compared with the rest of prime-time TV and the movie business as a whole covered under the SAG contract.
The two unions, whose combined ranks include about 44,000 actors with dual membership, had negotiated their TV contracts together for nearly three decades. But AFTRA decided to go it alone earlier this year after long-simmering tensions over territorial issues with SAG reached a boiling point.
The tentative AFTRA deal is subject to approval by the union's governing board and ratification by its members.