With contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers at a stalemate, the backroom haggling between the writers and the studios moved to the very public arena of the late-night airwaves last week as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and others returned from a two-month hiatus.
Industry consensus had firmly held that David Letterman’s “Late Show” has a newfound enormous advantage against longtime rival Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” due to Mr. Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, reaching an interim agreement with the WGA to allow his writers to resume their duties.
But in their first two nights on the air, viewers once again favored Mr. Leno’s program by a clear margin, according to the Nielsen overnights.
Far from an awkward nonstarter, critics also praised Mr. Leno for putting together a respectable performance without his writing team. Many of their compliments, however, stemmed from the one aspect of Mr. Leno’s show that was written by the comic in advance: his trademark monologue.
The monologue took many WGA members by surprise, and the guild quickly issued a statement saying his performance was against the union’s strike rules. NBC countered by claiming Mr. Leno was allowed to write material for himself.
The absence of writers initially did not appear to dramatically impact the late-night ratings, a development that could be viewed as hurting the WGA’s position regardless of the jokes hosts make at their employer’s expense.
Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research & Education at the University of California at Berkeley, said the late-night battle still appears to be a draw.
“The combination seems like a wash,” he said. “Letterman came to a separate agreement and that puts some pressure on the studios, and it’s true Leno beat him without writers and we’ll see how long that lasts. If you’re going forward with the show without writers and quality is low, and they’re constantly making references to the strike, that’s got to add some pressure.”
As of late Friday, WGA sources were divided on how far the guild would push the issue of Leno’s monologue. Some members see his writing it as a clear violation that should be punished—WGA responses could include fines and expulsion—while others fear alienating a popular and public supporter of their cause.
Meanwhile, a second on-air battlefront heated up late last week as Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg announced that none of the actors nominated for a Golden Globe Award will cross a picket line to attend NBC’s Jan. 13 telecast of the awards presentation.
“After considerable outreach to Golden Globe actor nominees and their representatives over the past several weeks, there appears to be unanimous agreement that these actors will not cross WGA picket lines to appear on the Golden Globe Awards as acceptors or presenters,” he said. “We applaud our members for this remarkable show of solidarity for striking Writers Guild of America writers.”
The WGA has refused to grant a waiver to the annual production, even on the same terms as the Worldwide Pants deal.
As of deadline, NBC maintained it will still move forward with the broadcast.
This week, the late-night jockeying is expected to continue as Comedy Central’s heavily scripted “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” make their post-strike debuts tonight without writers. The content changes are being kept under wraps, but sources said the war of words between “The Tonight Show” and the WGA should have no impact on the new formats.