March 23, 2023

Guidelines for Animal Safety on Film Sets Questioned

And the book is voluminous, 131 pages of guidelines imposed by the American Humane Association on film and television productions, all seeking those coveted words of approval: “No animal was harmed.”

Still, animals sometimes are harmed, and when they are, the public outcry is swift. A year ago, after a third horse was injured and euthanized on the HBO series “Luck” — the horse reared, flipped over backward and struck her head on the ground — the company announced the next day that it was canceling the show.

Incidents like those on “Luck” focus attention on the humane association and its ability to monitor and enforce standards. In the aftermath of those deaths, animal rights groups pressed for answers amid suggestions of negligence, and a former association employee filed a wrongful termination suit, saying she was punished for lodging complaints about the treatment of horses.

More recently, there was a reaction over the deaths of some two dozen animals during production of the “Hobbit” films and a recent Kmart commercial on which a shark died. In a statement last Thursday, the humane association, which is based in Washington, said it was investigating the death last week of a dog that had been taken to a clinic at the association’s behest after showing signs of distress before it was called to the set of a commercial shoot.

Trainers and others in the business accuse the association of being too cozy with the industry, which provides its financing, and of being more interested in expanding its power than exercising it.

The humane association argues that it is struggling to meet the challenges of protecting animals in an era of modern filmmaking. “We’re not covering enough animal action, because of the way the business model in the industry has changed,” Robin R. Ganzert, the association’s chief executive, said in a phone interview last month.

Ms. Ganzert and others suggest that the association’s resources and authority are too limited in an era that has brought the proliferation of smaller productions — like indie films, cable TV and even Internet productions — as well as a sharp rise in public expectations regarding animal safety.

Many of these issues will get a hearing at a planned meeting on Wednesday at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences here. So far, however, studio response has been cautious. Queried about plans to attend, no major studio except Warner Brothers confirmed that it would attend.

Film companies generally value the association’s certification, which tends to allay public concern about animal scenes, and few would suggest that the current financial shortfalls are beyond the reach of an industry that churns through billions of dollars in revenue each year. But the studios have yet to address the problem, partly because executives are wary of meddling with a financing system devised to operate at arm’s length.

Still, word of the planned get-together is provoking a fierce reaction among animal trainers and others who have not been invited (though a trainer will join a panel discussion). Some suspect the association of a power-grab that is meant to increase income, and cover its own failings.

Trainers, who are already heavily regulated by state and federal officials, are particularly incensed by the idea that the association might seek to extend its authority beyond film sets, to include certification of those who house and supply animals — something they see as an attempt to bolster funds by tapping them for fees.

“It feels to us that they’re becoming an animal rights organization no longer interested in what’s right and wrong in the industry, but only in collecting money,” said Benay Karp, an animal-keeper whose company is equipped to supply trained skunks, prairie dogs, hummingbirds or, if the scene calls for it, a rhinoceros.

In January, Ms. Karp led an uprising in which about three dozen trainers and others confronted association officials at their Studio City office. The trainers complained that the group had failed to back them in disputes with aggressive producers and directors, has often dispatched monitors who had no specific experience with exotic animals on a set, and was getting too chummy with the industry it watches.

They cited Hallmark Channel’s “2011 Hero Dog Awards,” for which Ms. Ganzert was an executive producer. Some trainers said the association had crossed a line by supplying a dog that was not specifically trained for film.

“We turned it into a listening meeting,” Karen Rosa, who oversees the association’s film and television operation, said of the showdown. “For some people, we’ll always be too tough. For others, we’ll never be tough enough.”

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DealBook: UniCredit’s Weak Share Offering Is Poor Omen in Europe

Federico Ghizzoni, the chief executive of UniCredit, on Saturday attributed the slide in the bank's stock largely to “technical reasons.”Alessandra Benedetti/Bloomberg NewsFederico Ghizzoni, the chief executive of UniCredit, on Saturday attributed the slide in the bank’s stock largely to “technical reasons.”

LONDON — UniCredit, Italy’s largest bank, is undergoing a trial by fire in the stock market, underscoring the challenges that European banks face in trying to right themselves.

Shares of UniCredit have been in free fall as investors have balked at a new stock offering meant to bolster the bank’s capital. Since last week, UniCredit’s market value has plunged by more than 40 percent.

It is a bad omen for struggling European banks. At the behest of regulators, the region’s financial institutions must raise a combined $145 billion by June. But banks may have a tough time convincing investors to plow more money into the beleaguered industry if UniCredit’s experience is any indication.

“I think this should scare policy makers,” said Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a research institute in Brussels. “Banks have been saying for some time that it’s impossible for them to raise money collectively in this market.”

Investors remain skittish, as the sovereign debt crisis continues to rattle the markets. On Monday, the German government sold six-month bills at a negative yield, the latest sign that safety is more important than returns in the current environment.

UniCredit is suffering from the same worries. Last week, the bank announced a plan to sell new stock at 1.943 euros a share, in a so-called rights offering. At that level, the company said, the price represented a 43 percent discount to UniCredit’s market value, making certain assumptions about the offering.

On Monday, the first day of trading, investor demand remained weak. The offering closed at 47 euro cents.

“The first problem with UniCredit is that they come from Italy,” said Werner Schirmer, an analyst at Landesbank Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart. “The timing is really bad.”

Given investors’ fears, the next few months could be rocky for the region’s banks. The European Banking Authority in October began pushing banks to increase their core Tier 1 capital ratios, a buffer against financial shocks, to 9 percent of assets. UniCredit has to raise its reserves by more than $10 billion.

“Some banks will be able to raise capital, but there’s a finite market for these assets,” said Karl Goggin, a banking analyst at NCB Stockbrokers in Dublin.

Many banks had hoped to tap the equity markets to raise money. But “the UniCredit rights issue today was a wake-up call from a lot of other banks,” said a high-level investment banker at a European firm, who was not authorized to talk publicly. “It shows that you want to avoid raising equity through a rights issuance if at all possible.” That leaves banks with just a handful of options, include selling business operations, particularly in overseas markets, and rejiggering their debt holdings to free capital.

Healthier banks should be able to meet the new requirements. On Monday, Grupo Santander of Spain, which had been ordered to raise roughly $19 billion, said it had reached its capital target, six months ahead of the deadline. Santander bolstered its reserves largely by converting 6.8 billion euros in bonds into shares, retaining profits and transferring a stake in its Brazilian unit to an outside investor.

But the Spanish bank has notable advantages over UniCredit. For one, Santander has large overseas businesses, particularly in Latin America and Britain, and a diverse retail deposit base to offset its stagnating home market. By comparison, UniCredit, which has large operations in Italy, Germany and Austria, has suffered because of its established presence in Eastern European countries that have felt the effects of the Continent’s sovereign debt crisis.

Italian banks generally have been under pressure. After the European Central Bank’s decision to offer unlimited funds on a three-year basis, the country’s banks stepped up to the coffers. Italian banks borrowed more than 200 billion euros in December, more than double the amount in November, according to the Bank of Italy.

As banks like UniCredit lumber along, the situation could ripple through the economy. Analysts fear that banks will pull back on their lending, weighing on growth.

“If banks cut lending to achieve capital adequacy, we should expect a really, really big credit crunch and really deep economic downturn to ensue,” said Carl B. Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics.

“What UniCredit’s plight suggests is that banks that are in a dark situation cannot sell equity shares to the public,” he added. “That is not good for the economy.”

Investors are scared. Since laying out its offering plans, shares of UniCredit have fallen by 45 percent to 2.29 euros. Trading in the bank’s stock was suspended a few times on Monday because of market volatility.

The bank’s chief executive, Federico Ghizzoni, earlier blamed “technical reasons” for the stock weakness, according to a report by Reuters that cited the Corriere della Sera. Prime Minister Mario Monti told France 24 television last week that the bank had “encountered some temporary difficulties” because of the capital increase.

But at the current price, UniCredit’s market value of $9.65 billion is only slightly more than the amount the bank had hoped to raise with its rights issue.

Mark Scott reported from London, and David Jolly from Paris. Landon Thomas Jr. contributed reporting from London.

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Media Decoder Blog: Disney’s Iger to Step Down in 2015

1:52 p.m. | Updated LOS ANGELES – Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has signed a new contract that keeps him atop the world’s largest entertainment company until March 2015. But he will then move to a lesser role for a year before leaving Disney entirely, the company said Thursday.

Under the new contract – positioned by the Walt Disney Company as an effort to lock Mr. Iger up for as long as possible – Mr. Iger will gain the title of chairman in March of next year, succeeding John E. Pepper, who will step down after having served four years in that job. In March of 2015, Disney’s board will name a new chief executive and Mr. Iger will transition to executive chairman.

Mr. Iger will then leave Disney on June 30, 2016. He started his entertainment career at Disney-owned ABC in 1974. Mr. Iger will be 65 upon his departure; Disney’s mandatory retirement age for board members is 74.

Since chief executives are typically pulled from their corner offices kicking and screaming, attention is likely to focus on what Mr. Iger has planned for his long-term future. It has long been speculated that he has political ambitions, possibly in New York, where he grew up and worked early in his career.

Thursday’s announcement also raises the question of succession. Disney likes to promote from within and at the moment there appear to be two primary candidates to replace Mr. Iger: James A. Rasulo, Disney’s chief financial officer and former theme park chairman; and Thomas O. Staggs, currently theme park chairman and formerly C.F.O. (The two men switched roles at Mr. Iger’s behest in 2009.

Since becoming Disney’s chief executive in 2005, Mr. Iger has mostly kept the company sailing smoothly through a cluster of storms, chiefly the recession, which hammered television advertising sales and threatened the company’s theme parks.

Despite some messy quarters, Disney’s results for the last fiscal year were quite strong: Net income rose 20 percent, to $3.96 billion, from $3.31 billion. The company has outperformed the Standard Poor’s index by five times since Mr. Iger took over.

Mr. Iger’s accomplishments include the acquisitions of Pixar Animation Studios and Marvel Entertainment and securing approval from the Chinese government (after decades of efforts) for a sprawling theme park in Shanghai. ESPN, a Disney unit, continues to surge and other cable properties, notably ABC Family, have also picked up considerable momentum.

But there is plenty of work still to do. Disney has been inconsistent when it comes to adapting to new technology – on the one had becoming the first media company to make television shows available on iTunes and on the other struggling to turn around its unprofitable online division. ABC needs to find new hits, and a turnaround at Disney’s movie studio is still a work in progress.

The new contract, which replaces one that still had two years before expiring, contains notable changes to Mr. Iger’s compensation. His base annual salary will increase by 25 percent, to $2.5 million, with a higher annual bonus target. But unlike his previous contract, this one does not provide an upfront stock-option grant as an additional signing bonus; the previous contract provided one valued at $25 million.

Mr. Iger’s salary and bonus last year was about $16 million. His total compensation, including equity awards, was about $28 million, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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Consumer Advocates Abandon Talks on Window Blind Safety

Four consumer advocates said that they would no longer participate in discussions by a task force that was intended to draft new guidelines to make window blinds safer for children.

The four, all of the consumer advocates on the task force, stormed out of talks on Thursday, saying their recommendations were being ignored by the group.

The task force — which has some 30 members including regulators and manufacturers of window blinds as well as the consumer advocates — was created last year at the behest of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to suggest improvements to window blind safety, in lieu of regulations. The task force’s recommendations are due in October. The commission then will decide what action to take, if any.

Roughly one child a month dies by strangling on window blind cords, and consumer advocates on the task force pushed for changes that they contended would eliminate the hazards.

Manufacturers focused on more modest improvements, saying removing all dangers was impossible.

The dispute hit a peak Thursday morning at a meeting in Washington, a day after manufacturers handed over the latest draft of proposed changes to window blinds and coverings.

“It did not fulfill the goals of this process, which was to eliminate the hazard,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America and a member of the task force. “Our recommendations were not being listened to, we were being ignored and resisted.”

She also said that research commissioned by manufacturers to help with writing the new guidelines was not made available to the entire task force.

“We could no longer give legitimacy to this process,” she said. The other task force members who left the meeting were Donald L. Mays, senior director of product safety planning and technical administration at Consumers Union; Carol Pollack-Nelson, a former regulator who is now a safety consultant; and Linda Kaiser, the founder of Parents for Window Blind Safety.

Ralph Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, said he was disappointed that the consumer advocates had “abandoned” the process. He said his members were committed to working with regulators to update the guidelines.

“Already great progress has been made,” he said, in a statement. “Our safety standards are the safest in the world and the proposed updates go even further in minimizing potential risk.”

The proposals include more robust performance and testing requirements, the development of new warning labels and technical changes that would “greatly improve safety,” he said.

The impasse means the issue will have to be settled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an agency that itself is divided by partisan rifts. Its chairwoman, Inez M. Tenenbaum, previously expressed frustration with blind manufacturers.

“It troubles me greatly that the revisions to the standards for roll-up blinds, Roman shades and other window coverings may fall far short of what I expected,” she said on Thursday. “There are two months left before the window covering industry must meet their deadline and I expect to see proposed standards that are strong and eliminate the risk of strangulation to young children.” For a few decades, window blind makers have tried various design changes and offered tips to minimize the risk that children get tangled in blind cords. Still, the number of strangulation deaths has remained fairly constant. The industry points out, however, that sales have increased.

Some consumer advocates say that easy fixes to the problems are available, like cordless blinds and coverings for cords. But cordless blinds cost more to manufacture and can cost at least twice as much at stores.

Ms. Kaiser, whose 1-year-old daughter was strangled by a window blind cord in 2002, said the manufacturers’ current proposals did not address most of the hazards caused by blinds, like long operating cords and tension devices. “It’s disappointing,” she said. “The majority of strangulation issues are still there.”

Mr. Vasami said his members’ commitment to safety was “unwavering.” “We are constantly re-examining our standards and our education programs to ensure our products are on the leading edge of safety standards.”

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