New Year Brings Happy Returns for Leno, Conan -- But Not Their Writers

Jay Leno greets supporters of the crowd on the picket line in front of Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif., on Nov., 13, 2007. Leno and Conan O'Brien's late-night shows will return to the air with fresh episodes on January 2 after two months of repeats due to the writers' strike, the network said Monday, Dec. 17.
Jay Leno greets supporters of the crowd on the picket line in front of Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif., on Nov., 13, 2007. Leno and Conan O'Brien's late-night shows will return to the air with fresh episodes on January 2 after two months of repeats due to the writers' strike, the network said Monday, Dec. 17. (Richard Vogel - AP)

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By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

NBC late-night hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien will return to their shows Jan. 2 without the help of striking writers to craft their monologues and comedy bits.

Adding to the fun by the time they return to the air -- after more than two months of involuntary strike-triggered hiatus -- Leno and Conan could face CBS late-night competition that's received a waiver from the striking writers' guild.

That exemption would allow David Letterman's and Craig Ferguson's writers to get back on board -- as well as all those actors, politicians and other celeb guests who might not want to cross picket lines to be seen on the NBC programs.

"It's not a level playing field if they have writers and we don't," Leno's exec-producer Debbie Vickers whined yesterday on a conference call with the Reporters Who Cover Television.

"It wouldn't be our first choice," she added.

Within hours of NBC's news, the writers' guild denied waivers for NBC's Golden Globes broadcast and ABC's Oscars-cast, raising doubts that celebs will attend either ceremony. (More on that later.)

Reporters on a morning conference call with the shows' executive producers wanted to know whether Leno and Conan would be able to do opening monologues when they went back on the air. The two execs tap-danced around that question: Too early to say, need to get the staff back and thrash things out, blah, blah, blah.

But the Writers Guild of America got back to reporters very quickly to say that it was very clear on the subject, having already issued strike rules for comedy/variety shows, which prohibit guild members from writing anything "that would be performed on-air by that member (including monologues, characters and featured appearances) if any portion of that written material is customarily written by striking writers."

In statements that NBC e-mailed to the media yesterday morning, Leno and Conan -- both of whom are WGA members -- said they had no choice but to return to work because NBC had laid off their non-writing staffs, actually breaking the needle on the TV Column's Irony-O-Meter.

(Both men have been paying the salaries of their shows' so-called "below-the-line" staffers -- to the tune of six figures per week per host -- since NBC pink-slipped those employees Nov. 30; both hosts had said they would pay their non-writer staffs for the time being.)

"Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it's my responsibility to get my 100 non-writing staff [members], which were laid off, back to work," Leno said in his statement, adding that he fully supports his "Tonight Show" writers and thinks that they understand his decision to return to the air.

"Unfortunately, now with the New Year upon us, I am left with a difficult decision," Conan said in his statement about "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." "Either go back to work and keep my staff employed or stay dark and allow 80 people, many of whom have worked for me for 14 years, to lose their jobs."


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