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

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."

Not coincidentally, the two-month mark is when NBC late-night great Johnny Carson returned to host "The Tonight Show" during the writers' strike of '88.

NBC wanted to make sure the press discovered that connection, leaving a trail of very big crumbs across yesterday's announcement:

"During the 1988 writers' strike, Johnny Carson reluctantly returned to 'The Tonight Show' without his writers after two months," Rick Ludwin, NBC's exec vice president in charge of late night and other things, said in a statement e-mailed to the media yesterday morning.

Creepily, the name of the late Carson -- who was not there to defend himself -- was raised repeatedly during the phone news conference that included Leno and Conan's executive producers and Ludwin.

As in "Carson did monologues" when he came back because performers were allowed to write their own material. And Carson faced the same dilemma -- "his staff was going to be laid off." And Carson "knew he was going to take a little heat. . . . He went into it with his eyes open." And Carson did not have a waiver when he came back.

(On the other hand, Carson was not a WGA member, Carson owned "The Tonight Show" and was granted a WGA waiver about three weeks after returning to the show during that strike.)

Meanwhile, David Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America to get a waiver that would enable the company to get back to producing both the "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson."

Letterman can do this because Worldwide Pants owns both programs, which air on CBS; NBC, meanwhile, owns "Tonight" and "Late Night."

One reporter on yesterday's conference call asked Ludwin whether the network had considered making Leno's show a production of a Leno-helmed production company, so that he could try to broker a similar WGA waiver.

Ludwin said they had not. Of course they had not. Leno's first act would be to make himself Host for Life. NBC's plan, on the other hand, is to replace Leno with Conan as "Tonight" host in the fall of '09.

With Leno and Conan agreeing to take the public-relations hit for the team and come back to work, will NBC now pick up the tab for their non-writing staff's salaries for the rest of the year?

Ludwin tap-danced around that question, saying the matter "still needs to be worked out."

The WGA indicated yesterday it might be charitable toward its two straying sheep. Late yesterday, the guild issued a statement saying: "NBC forcing Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien back on the air without writers is not going to provide the quality entertainment that the public deserves."

The guild had not reacted so well when NBC's other late-night host, Carson Daly, decided to return to the network's even later-night show "Last Call" two weeks ago -- and he's not even a WGA member.

Daly had also played the "saving my loyal staff from the evil NBC" line in announcing his return; it failed to impress the guild, which scorched him in ads, picket signs, etc.

And just last week, several guild writers infiltrated Daly's studio audience and heckled him until NBC security escorted them out.

Ludwin agreed with one reporter's suggestion that the late-night hosts were taking a PR hit not suffered by other WGA member hyphenates, who have continued to work during the strike, such as writer/director J.J. Abrams who's working on directing the next "Star Trek" flick as we speak (based on a script he wrote) and Tina Fey, who is striking in her capacity as a writer on NBC's own "30 Rock" but who went back to work in her capacity as an actor on "30 Rock."

"Late-night hosts have been singled out and have been used as very visible shields by the writers' guild whereas other writers' guild members . . . are allowed to do non-WGA functions on movie and other projects without retribution from the guild," Ludwin said.

"It's a little unfair to suggest late-night talk show hosts can't come back and talk."

Both Vickers and "Late Night's" Jeff Ross said their staffs had been "taking the temperature" on who would be willing to cross the picket line to be a guest on the shows when they return. While acknowledging that none of the celebu-reps contacted had "gotten down to the nitty-gritty," Vickers said she thought there was a "Strike Fatigue" that might work in their favor.

"People realize that at some point you just can't wait any longer, even though you want to give everyone the opportunity to have resolution. . . . You can't just wait and wait and wait. In that sense, there is fatigue."

Late-night shows have been in a ratings free fall since the strike began. This month, Leno's show was down 3 million viewers from a year earlier, and Conan's show was off more than a million viewers.

One reporter wondered why Leno and Conan were not on the conference call, given that they are the ones who stand to take the biggest PR blowback by returning to the air.

An NBC spokeswoman took responsibility for not providing them to the reporters, adding brightly: "They put out statements, in case you don't have them," the rep said helpfully.

"You can't question a statement," the reporter shot back grumpily.

* * *

The Writers Guild of America has denied a request by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Dick Clark Productions to allow writers to prepare material for the 65th annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 13 -- a decision that virtually ensures that actors, directors and other industry types will not show up to collect or present trophies at the show, broadcast on NBC.

Additionally, the guild announced that it had denied a request by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a waiver in using clips from movies and past Oscar shows for use during this year's Oscars-cast on Feb. 24.

The academy and the Oscar broadcast executive producer Gil Cates had not yet asked for a waiver to allow writers to prepare material for that trophy show. But yesterday's WGA ruling regarding the clips indicates that a decision to turn down such a waiver might have already been made by the writers' guild. That would make it extremely unlikely, at the very least, that WGA member Jon Stewart will host this year's Academy Awards, as previously announced. (On the other hand, Jimmy Kimmel just last month went ahead and hosted the American Music Awards on ABC without his writing staff to help prepare fun bits for him to say, instead making cracks about this predicament -- demonstrating to the American public exactly how good his material is when he has to wing it.)

The writers' guild said in its statement that while thumbing its nose at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, WGA West President Patric M. Verrone has sent both groups letters describing the guild's "respect and admiration for both organizations."

Did I mention that the WGA, just the other day, granted the Screen Actors Guild a waiver to use WGA writers to stage its SAG trophy show, which is telecast on TBS and TNT? SAG, of course, has been very vocal in its support of the writers' strike.

In his "no hard feelings" letters, the guild says, Verrone explained to HFPA and AMPAS that "writers are engaged in a crucial struggle to achieve a collective bargaining agreement that will protect their compensation and intellectual property rights now and in the future. We must do everything we can to bring our negotiations to a swift and fair conclusion for the benefit of writers and all those who are being harmed by the companies' failure to engage in serious negotiations."

Verrone said that WGA's West Coast division's board of directors "concluded, reluctantly, that granting exceptions for the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards would not advance that goal."

Motion picture academy executives and the HFPA could not be reached for comment at press time.

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