New equation in writers' strike: return of Leno, O'Brien

Despite the Hollywood writers' strike, two late-night shows will air new episodes next month.

As the Hollywood writers' strike has dragged into Week 7, TV networks are hoping to toss a bone to rerun-fatigued viewers – if only during the wee hours.

With NBC's announcement that it will bring back "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" on Jan. 2, the industry is abuzz over the potential impact on the strike and its on-again, off-again negotiations.

The shows will be writerless, of course, meaning they'll probably be void of monologues and scripted skits, as well as heavy on chats with guests. For many rank-and-file writers, the morphed format presents an opportunity – for America to realize how much it misses the contributions that writers normally make to the shows.

But there is also a remote, yet not impossible chance that the hosts will launch a new late-night model, one that reinvents the form. Still another possibility is that the shows turn out to be something in between a success and a flop: The hosts could do well for a few weeks and then ultimately fizzle out without the support of skits and monologues.

"If the shows end up being no good, then it will demonstrate just how important writers are," says Norman Samnick, an entertainment lawyer and consultant with Bryan Cave LLP who advises entertainment companies about union agreements. "If the shows are great, some writers might fear for their jobs while negotiating producers suddenly find themselves in stronger positions."

NBC's late-night shows have been socked by sinking ratings. Repeats have run since the strike began, and "Leno" ratings, as of last week, had fallen 40 percent in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic that's prized by advertisers. "Conan" ratings had dropped 36 percent.

Reports have also come out that two shows on CBS could return even sooner: "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." Mr. Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants – not CBS – owns the two shows, which adds the complicating element that both might return with writers.

In addition, ABC is bringing back "Jimmy Kimmel Live" with new episodes, starting the same night as the relaunch of "Leno" and "O'Brien."

"The Hollywood writers' strike has reached a key moment in which viewer anger over reruns is really beginning to show, and no one in the negotiations is happy," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "The networks, the writers, the advertisers, and the negotiators have all realized if something isn't done, the writers won't have shows to come back to, and that hurts everyone."

Yet the hosts are in a tough position, say many industry insiders. According to one who asked not to be named, the network exerted extraordinary pressure on Messrs. Leno and O'Brien, even hinting that their seats could be filled by others if they did not return to work.

Some strikers think that the return of the hosts could help the writers' cause. "These hosts have been incredibly supportive of the strike so far," says writer/director Robin Swicord. "It's been tough to get our message out to the general public, but now, these hosts will have a platform to bring our issues to a large audience."

O'Brien himself has stated as much.

"My career in television started as a WGA [Writers Guild of America] member and my subsequent career as a performer has only been possible because of the creativity and integrity of my writing staff," he wrote in a released statement this week. "Since the strike began, I have stayed off the air in support of the striking writers. I will make clear, on the program, my support for the writers and I'll do the best version of Late Night I can under the circumstances."

The writerless shows will have to tread carefully to avoid violating Guild strike rules. In this case, says Tony Segall, general counsel for WGA West, the rules are fairly straightforward. "They can't perform any work that would normally be created by writers," he says, pointing to such bits as the opening monologue. Viewers should expect to see a many guests filling the chairs, say most observers.

In the words of O'Brien, his show may at times be "terrible."

But at least one observer sees a silver lining. "If these shows are looking for guests," says political consultant Matt Eventoff, "there are a whole lot of presidential candidates looking for free exposure in time for the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries." He points out that the field of viable candidates has broadened since early November, with several dark horses emerging whose biggest challenge is money. "Free air time is just what the newly viable candidates such as Mike Huckabee and John McCain need," he adds.

In fact, the shows may find themselves looking for more politicians than before the strike to fill a void created by celebrities in sister unions. Those in the Screen Actors or Directors Guilds might shy away from appearing on late-night shows during the strike.

In addition to helping fund-challenged presidential candidates get exposure, the return of late-night shows may help fill a void of a certain brand of social and political commentary that has been missing of late.

"Some of our candidates and politicians alike have been getting away unscathed as late-night shows have been silenced for weeks, says Bob Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "A culture and country in the midst of war and a presidential campaign needs comedy for a kind of safety-valve perspective it can't get any other way."

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