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A war of words has erupted over Ellen DeGeneres’ decision to continue filming her syndicated talk show during the writers strike. Such rifts suggest just how divided positions and actions by show business players are likely to become if the strike drags on.
The WGA East on Friday came out swinging against DeGeneres, who is alone among the comedy/ variety topliners to return to work during the week-old walkout, proclaiming that she wasn’t welcome in New York for her planned Thanksgiving-week tapings in the Big Apple. That triggered a response from AFTRA defending DeGeneres and another harsh letter from WGAE.
Meanwhile, Jay Leno’s refusal to cross the picket lines is leading his show’s producers to consider using guest hosts and other alternatives.
In other strike developments, Warner Bros. TV became the latest studio Friday to send out suspension letters to its writers, informing them that their pay is being put on hold because of the strike.
Industry sources describe the letters as cordial, a label also used for the notifications sent by ABC Studios. That is in contrast to the breach-of-contract notices sent by CBS Paramount and the suspension letters sent by 20th Century Fox TV to showrunners. Both are said to include language about the studios’ reserving the right to take action if the hyphenates don’t perform their producing duties.
WBTV on Friday also notified the assistants of writing and nonwriting producers that they are being laid off, a step already taken by 20th TV, ABC Studios and Universal Media Studios.
DeGeneres, whose “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is scheduled to tape in New York on Nov. 19 and Nov. 20, skipped filming Monday in support of her writers but returned to work Tuesday, paying them a tribute on her show that day.
In its letter, WGAE expressed “extreme disappointment” that DeGeneres, a WGA and AFTRA member, continues doing her show, something the guild said violated strike rules.
“We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away, yet she couldn’t even stand by writers for more than one day — writers who have helped make her extremely successful,” the letter said. “We ask Ellen to cease doing shows immediately.”
WGAE also said its members would “let Ellen know our dissatisfaction in person” if she tries to tape shows or segments for them in New York. WGAE chief Michael Winship declined to specify whether that includes protests at the New York studios where DeGeneres is scheduled to tape. “We have people who will be writing her on her Web site, and we will determine what our strategy will be in terms of pickets,” he said.
A spokesperson for the show’s producer, Telepictures Prods., said there’s a difference between “Ellen,” which is carried by local TV stations, and such late-night talk shows as “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Show With David Letterman,” which are owned and controlled by networks.
The rep noted that Telepictures and the show’s distributor, Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution, are under contract to continue delivering original episodes to the stations that carry the talker.
“We have asked Ellen to come back to work to fulfill her contractual obligation as host of the show because without original programs the stations can move the show out of its time periods or ultimately hold the company in breach of contract,” the rep said. “The company in turn expects Ellen not to breach her contract to host the show. We also wish to preserve the 135 jobs of the staff and the crew whose livelihoods depend on the show continuing.”
Late Friday, AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth sent a letter to WGAE executive director Mona Mangan defending DeGeneres and questioning the guild’s decision to go public with its views rather than contact AFTRA first.
The letter also stated that AFTRA members working under the AFTRA Network TV Code —including DeGeneres, whose show is covered under the agreement —are “legally required by the no-strike clause of that contract to report to work and perform their AFTRA-covered responsibilities,” though many have been “put out of work because of the strike.”
As for WGAE’s claim that DeGeneres is performing struck work, AFTRA said it needed to investigate the claim because its members have been instructed not to do that. Mangan issued her own response to Hedgpeth in a letter sent later Friday night.
“It is not the guild’s intention to involve any union, such as your own, in our efforts to encourage individuals to withhold their services,” it read. “What we ask of them are acts of individual conscience.”
Meanwhile, it’s rerun land all over in late-night, including on HBO, whose “Real Time With Bill Maher” on Friday scrapped its season finale, instead airing an episode from a few weeks ago. Several shows are facing the possibility of laying off employees should the strike enter a third week.
NBC’s “Tonight Show” has been in repeats since Nov. 5. Leno has supported his writers by not crossing the picket lines.
“All sorts of things are being discussed, including guest hosts,” executive producer Debbie Vickers said. “Our preference is that we return to production of ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jay as host as soon as possible. We want to protect the staff, who have been loyal to this show for decades, in the same way that Johnny Carson reluctantly returned without his writers in 1988.”
Staffers on “Tonight Show” — from 70-100 people — were notified Tuesday that if the strike continued, they would be let go as of Nov. 19 (HR 11/7). Similar two-week notices went out to workers on other late-night shows.
NBC Universal sent an internal e-mail Friday warning that more jobs could be in jeopardy. It already laid off writers assistants.
“There is no ignoring the financial damage the strike is inflicting upon the industry, and we can only hope the WGA returns to the bargaining table soon with a strong desire to work toward an agreement,” the e-mail read. “An unfortunate consequence of the strike is the impact upon many employees associated with productions that must be shut down. Our business and HR leaders are dealing with this on a case-by-case basis in the most appropriate manner possible.”
Kimberly Nordyke reported from Los Angeles; Paul J. Gough reported from New York. Nellie Andreeva and Carl DiOrio contributed to this report.
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