Viewers flock; Leno under fire


After eight weeks away, the late-night talk shows returned to the air with big ratings and some controversy.

NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," without its writing staff, averaged 7.2 million viewers and a 2.2 rating in adults 18-49 on Wednesday, well ahead of CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" (5.5 million viewers, 1.7), which came back with writers thanks to the deal that Letterman's Worldwide Pants struck with the WGA. Both shows were up about 2 million viewers from their prestrike season averages.

"Tonight" featured Leno performing what appeared to be a prepared monologue, something that didn't sit well with the WGA.

"I write jokes," Leno said on the show. "We are following the guild thing; we can write for ourselves."

Reps for the WGA West said they met with Leno on Thursday "to clarify to him that writing for 'The Tonight Show' constitutes a violation of the guild's strike rules."

Replied NBC: "The WGA agreement permits Jay Leno to write his own monologue for 'The Tonight Show.' The WGA is not permitted to implement rules that conflict with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the studios and the WGA." Leno did another monologue on Thursday's show.

WGAW's statement was said to come as a surprise to Leno, who had met Monday with WGAW president and former "Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" writer Patric Verrone as well as other WGA members, including 15 current "Tonight Show" writers. At that meeting, Leno had discussed his intent to write his monologues, and "they said they were going to give him a pass because of his support for the strike," a source said.

In fact, on Thursday, it reportedly was Leno who contacted Verrone to remind him of their verbal agreement, and in the conversation, the "Tonight Show" host reaffirmed his support for the strike but also reiterated that he will continue to write monologues. He did so for the Thursday show.

What writing duties late-night show hosts can perform during a writers strike has been the subject of different interpretations.

WGA is adamant that, under its strike rules, hosts like Leno, who are WGA members, cannot perform any "writing services" for their shows, including penning their own monologues. Meanwhile, NBC claims that late-night hosts are exempt and are within their legal right to write monologues according to Article 1.A.5 of Appendix A of WGA's 2004 collective bargaining agreement, which the network says excludes performers' own material from the agreement, and no strike rules or other WGA provisions can trump that.

The issue of Leno's monologue was met with confusion on the picket line at the Burbank studios where "Tonight" tapes. Screenwriter Mike Preister said he was "disappointed" in the host.

"I was surprised to see him do a monologue," Preister said. "Everyone is trying to figure out if he broke the rules."

TV writer Doug Molitor said he was curious in particular about Leno's "Writer Town" bit that showed footage of "writers' house" — shacks with signs of various TV shows posted on the outside.

"It looked like a written bit to me," he said. "Who wrote that? An editor didn't sit down and think of that. … It will hurt our efforts if Jay is buying material from nonguild members or scabs."

Preister and Molitor each gave a thumbs-up to Letterman's "Late Show," which featured frequent references to the writers walkout, including a strike-themed Top 10 list delivered by a group of WGA members.

"There was a good mix of humor and information (about the strike)," Preister said. "I recently went home to Nebraska, and even my cousins were asking about (what's going on with) the strike. Letterman is helping get the word out that the strike is still out there."

As for their guests — Letterman featured Robin Williams, Leno had Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — Molitor was mixed.

"Robin Williams was great," Molitor said. "As politicians go, Mike Huckabee is funnier than most, but he's no Robin Williams."

As for the ratings, "Tonight," "Late Show," NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and CBS' "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" hit season highs in total viewers.

"Late Night" averaged 2.8 million viewers and a 1.2 rating, topping "Late Late Show" (2.2 million, 0.7) and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (1.8 million, 0.6). "Late Night" and "Late Late Show" were up compared with their prestrike season averages, but Kimmel was down slightly in viewership.

In other strike-related NBC developments, the network was said to be conferring late Thursday with reps from Dick Clark Prods. about whether to broadcast the Jan. 13 Golden Globe Awards.

According to the contract between the network and Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which owns the Globes show with Dick Clark Prods., NBC may have grounds to opt out or postpone the event.

If NBC decided against airing the show, the WGA likely would call off its planned picket line, which in turn could prompt SAG to lift its recommendation that actors stay home.

As of Thursday night, NBC was going ahead with its original Globes plans, but a move such as altering or canceling the broadcast or postponing the show is considered imminent unless Dick Clark Prods. lands a last-minute waiver.

Paul J. Gough reported from New York; Nellie Andreeva reported from Los Angeles. Kimberly Nordyke in Los Angeles and Steven Zeitchik in New York contributed to this report.