Late-night talkers return with pickets

4:00 AM PST 01/02/2008 by Kimberly Nordyke, Paul J. Gough

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THR's Past Deadline blog will have live commentary and reviews of Wednesday night's late-night talkers.

As Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel plan their return to late-night, their respective networks mostly were keeping mum on plans for the hosts' three shows as they tape their first new episodes Wednesday without their writing staffs.

Meanwhile, the WGA told its membership during the weekend that it was planning to picket all three shows, as well as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," both of which return with new episodes Monday.

Worldwide Pants worked out a deal late last week with the WGA that would let CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" return to the air with their writing staffs.

That puts the other three network shows -- NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" -- at a competitive disadvantage.

It was unclear what the plans were for the NBC and ABC shows, with much of the planning expected to take place down to the wire ahead of Wednesday's telecasts.

Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel all are guild members, and a WGA representative said last week that, under the strike rules, the trio are not allowed to perform any "writing services" for their shows, including writing their own monologues. However, network sources disputed that stipulation, arguing that the late-night hosts are exempt and would be allowed to write monologues.

When former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson returned after two months during the 1988 writers strike, he did a scaled-down monologue. But the guild said that Carson was able to write a monologue because he wasn't a WGA member.

Addressing the return, "Late Night" executive producer Jeff Ross said last month: "Obviously, the shows may look a little different. We're going to have to fill time with things that we haven't before" (HR 12/18).

However, it is likely that the hosts will address the writers strike in some form as Carson did in his return (HR 12/26).

"I think it's fair game,"said Rick Ludwin, executive vp late night at NBC.

Meanwhile, the two CBS shows will be able to benefit from full monologues and skits without fear of running afoul of guild rules.

Worldwide Pants CEO Rob Burnett acknowledged that the shows would have an advantage but told The Hollywood Reporter last week that it mattered more that the below-the-line employees who are affected by the strike get back to work.

"We would give up that competitive advantage if it meant" that the strike would be settled and everyone get back to work, Burnett said.

In a letter sent to its membership Friday night, WGA leadership wrote that agreements like those with Worldwide Pants are ongoing strike strategies.

"In the case of late-night shows, our strike pressure will be intense and essential in directing political and SAG-member guests to Letterman and Ferguson rather than to struck talk shows," the letter states.

Wednesday's "Late Show" guests are scheduled to be Robin Williams and musical guest Shooter Jennings. Other "Late Show" guests this week include Donald Trump (who originally was set for Wednesday but now will appear later in the week), Bill Maher and Ellen Page ("Juno"). At press time, there was no information on Ferguson's guests.



Meanwhile, NBC wasn't shy about promoting the return of Leno and O'Brien on Saturday night's simulcast of the Patriots-Giants game.

"Jay Leno is reporting for duty and Conan O'Brien is rising to the occasion," the announcer read, not mentioning that both late-night comics would be going without their writers. Both hosts had been paying their below-the-line employees out of their pockets, but with no end to the strike in sight, they were compelled to return to work to avoid mass layoffs.

NBC's ads made no mention of who Leno or O'Brien's guests would be, though the network has since confirmed that Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee will appear on Wednesdayt's installment of "Tonight Show" (HR 12/30). The network hadn't yet disclosed any other guests for "Tonight Show" or "Late Night" at press time Tuesday, and there was no information on either show's Web site.

ABC has likewise kept mum on the first guests to appear on "Jimmy Kimmel" when it returns Wednesday.

Even with the Worldwide Pants agreement, the WGA promised that it would keep up the pressure on the big media companies. Ten of the strike's most ardent picketers -- the writing staff of "Late Show" -- will be back at work by Wednesday.

"They've been very vocal but now they'll be very vocal on CBS, which we think is going to be a definite plus for us," WGA East president Michael Winship said. "They'll be making our case with great humor but wonderful clarity and pointedness."

In explaining the Worldwide Pants deal to its membership in Friday's letter, the WGA leadership outlined its strike strategy going forward. It includes picket lines this week at NBC in Burbank and 30 Rock, where "Tonight Show" and "Late Night" are taped, as well as the studios where "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are produced.

Meanwhile, in a separate letter to members dated Tuesday, Winship wrote that the decision to picket the late-night shows is a "difficult and painful" one and noted the support that the hosts have given the writers.

"We know that some believe this to be unfair and will be unhappy, but we are taking into consideration our overall strategy and the needs of all 10,500 of our members currently on strike," Winship wrote. "Our picket will not be of the hosts themselves but the companies for which their shows are produced."

On Friday, the guild also noted that writers will continue to create new-media content to advance their position and promised that "outreach to advertisers and investors will intensify in the days ahead." The WGA already has spoken to analysts and advertisers in conference calls sponsored by Bear Stearns and others.

While it isn't clear how the return to originals will play out in the ratings, one thing is crystal clear: The late-night shows have been hit hard during the first six weeks of strike repeats. Nielsen Media Research data shows "Tonight Show" is down 27% and "Late Night" is down 23%, both in adults 18-49; ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel" and CBS' "Late Show" and "Late Late Show" are down less than 10%, all compared with the six weeks before the strike.

Kimberly Nordyke reported from Los Angeles; Paul J. Gough reported from New York. Leslie Simmons in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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