Bad News for Leno, a Plus for Letterman

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, November 16, 2007

Perhaps you've seen all the stories bravely forecasting that "Nightline's" ratings would be up for last week -- the first week of the Hollywood writers' strike, which immediately plunged David Letterman, Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert's talkers into reruns. USA Today, for instance, quoted "Nightline" producer James Goldston as he danced the Happy Dance with his Sad Face on:

These are rather difficult circumstances for everybody and nobody would wish it to happen, but clearly I think this is both an opportunity and a challenge for us, blah, blah, boo, hoo.

And yes, when final national numbers for last week's late-night shows came in yesterday -- it takes Nielsen that long to spit out late-night numbers -- "Nightline" gained about 300,000 viewers to 3.8 million, while Leno's "Tonight" show plunged by about a million viewers to 3.9 million, and Colbert skidded from the previous week's 1.4 million to a scary 829,000 viewers.

But that's kids' stuff. Here's the news: David Letterman's overall audience with reruns was on par with the previous week with original episodes -- 4 million viewers. And he gained eyeballs in TV's key demographic groups, including the Holy Grail -- the 18-to-49-year-olds.

Yes, David Letterman's CBS late-night show in reruns, not "Nightline," won the first week of the writers' strike, pretty much any way you want to slice it. He won among viewers of all ages; he won among "Nightline's" target news demo of 25-to-54-year-olds; and also in the talker's target demographic, the 18-to-49-year-olds.

The prevailing theory is that Leno's audience, which had already seen his episodes' kitschy monologue and fawning interviews, migrated over to Letterman's episodes, which, to paraphrase an old NBC marketing pitch to viewers when it (and the other broadcast networks) began jamming repeats into every non-sweep month of the year, were "new to you" since those viewers hadn't seen the episodes the first time around.

This is the second bit of good news for Letterman's staff this week. Letterman's Worldwide Pants Inc., which owns and produces both Letterman's "Late Show" and Craig Ferguson's "Late Late Show," were told this week the company would pay their salaries through the end of the year, regardless of whether they are in strike-induced reruns.

Meanwhile, it had been reported that staffers on the NBC-owned "Tonight" show, "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "Last Call With Carson Daly" were notified they could be laid off as early as today because of the strike, but NBC late yesterday confirmed it intends to pay those staffs' full salaries for at least two more weeks.

Suits at all the networks continue to chat about how to bring back their late-night shows without the writers. Among the things they are trying to work out is how to placate their shows' hosts, who don't want to be the first to cross the picket line.

* * *

Want to be part of Writers Guild of America-busting history? Well then, show up at one of the audition sites CBS has set up, starting this weekend, for the next edition of "Big Brother."

The network announced the super-early casting call for "BB9" but would only say, coyly, that "BB9" would "broadcast in 2008."

The early casting call would seem to confirm reports that "BB9" is part of CBS's secret Writers Guild strike contingency plan and will debut during the "official" TV season, long before its usual summer run. CBS, like all TV networks, is looking to fill time slots crying for original programming when it runs out of original episodes of "Two and a Half Men," "CSI," "Criminal Minds," etc., owing to the pencils-down-ishness of striking writers.

Who needs writers when you've got exhibitionists willing to live cheek by jowl in a "house" wired with cameras and microphones in every room, recording their every tantrum, sexual encounter and bodily function, 24/7, with which you can fill about three hours of prime time a week.

People who just want to be "famous."

People who won't start whining about residuals when an episode shows up on, or on your cellphone.

People who can't even spell "residuals."

Heck, "BB9" is the Practically Perfect Writers' Strike Show.

* * *

In other writers' strike news:

The casts of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock" will perform episodes of both strike-shuttered shows this weekend at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, the theater publication Playbill reports.

Saturday night's performance of "SNL" will feature a collection of sketches from that show, performed by the entire current cast. Monday's "30 Rock" performance will feature Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski and Tracy Morgan performing an episode from the primetime comedy.

The live performances of both shows, which are exec-produced by Lorne Michaels, have already sold out, and all proceeds will benefit the Writers Guild strike fund, the publication says.

No word on how NBC Universal, which owns both shows and which is a member of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that the writers are striking against, feels about having its material used as a writers' guild fundraiser. NBC declined to comment yesterday.

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