NBC late-night hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien will return to the air without writers after two months of a strike-induced break, the network announced Monday morning.
“The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” will resume production and the first episode will air Jan. 2.
“We put it off as long as we could,” said Jeff Ross, executive producer of “Late Night.”
The decision to return comes after weeks of speculation and media scrutiny about whether the hosts, both members of the Writers Guild, will break union ranks to resume their non-writing hosting duties.
“The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” have seen steep ratings drops since going into repeats last month.
Mr. Leno and Mr. O’Brien released statements saying they were motivated to return to the air in order to keep their production crews employed.
“I was, like most people, hoping for a quick resolution when this began,” Mr. Leno said in his statement. “I remained positive during the talks and, while they were still at the table discussing a solution, ‘The Tonight Show’ remained dark in support of our writing staff. 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, which were laid off, back to work. We fully support our writers and I think they understand my decision.”
Mr. O’Brien, who has reportedly paid the salaries of his non-writing staff since the start of the strike, called the return “a difficult decision.”
“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,” he said. “If my show were entirely scripted I would have no choice. … So, it is only after a great deal of thought that I have decided to go back on the air on Jan. 2. I will make clear, on the program, my support for the writers and I’ll do the best version of ‘Late Night’ I can under the circumstances. Of course, my show will not be as good. In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible. My sincerest hope is that all of my writers are back soon, working under a contract that provides them everything they deserve.”
Rick Ludwin, NBC’s head of late night, pointed to the history of late-night hosts continuing to work without writers—such as during the 1988 writers strike, when Johnny Carson returned to the air. Mr. Ludwin also said the high-profile late-night hosts have been unfairly singled out by the WGA, while other entertainment figures have continued working.
“While others have done non-WGA functions without retribution … it’s a little unfair to suggest late-night talk show hosts can’t come back and talk,” Mr. Ludwin said.
The return of the NBC shows still raise several questions, however, such as whether celebrity guests will be willing to cross a picket line to appear on the shows. NBC’s late-night producers said they’ve been “taking the temperature” in the talent community during the strike and are increasingly finding there is a willingness to appear on their shows.
“People are warming to the idea,” said Debbie Vickers, executive producer of “The Tonight Show.”
But CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman” reportedly is negotiating with the WGA to have an interim agreement that will allow the show to return with writers, and then serve as a bully pulpit for the strikers’ cause.
If “Late Show” returns under such an agreement, it raises the possibility of being a double competitive threat to NBC’s lineup—a more polished and traditional program due to having a writing staff, plus more attractive to celebrity guests who prefer not to cross a picket line.
“It’s not a level playing field if they have writers and we don’t,” Ms. Vickers said. “It wouldn’t be our first choice … but that’s beyond our control.”
“Late Show” is owned by Mr. Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, while the NBC programs are owned by NBC Studios. NBC cannot readily separate its two late-night shows from its tent of programs represented in the contract negotiations by the AMPTP, Mr. Ludwin said, to negotiate an interim agreement of their own.
The format for the NBC shows is still being determined, producers said. Monologues may continue, just as Mr. Carson and Mr. Letterman performed their own material during the 1988 strike.
With Mr. O’Brien pledging to support his writers on the air, another question is how comfortable the network will be with at least one late-night host championing the WGA.
“In 1988 when Johnny and Jay returned, they both made plenty of comments about the strike,” Mr. Ludwin said. “It’s a topic in the news, it’s fair game. All the way back to Jack Paar in the 1950s, it’s what these shows do.”
“We’ve been taking shots at NBC for 15 years,” agreed “Late Night” producer Mr. Ross.