News

WGA Battle Moves to Late-Night Shows

Lack of Writers Doesn’t Hurt Leno’s Ratings

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.

Comments (5)

Thomas:

You know, it's sad really. I really was pulling for you guys in the beginning. I wanted you to cripple the AMPTP and get a fair contract. I really did. But now, I just don't know what to think anymore. I think your tactics are having a bigger effect on us, the fans than it is on the AMPTP. And I know that sounds selfish, but it's true. The AMPTP doesn't give a shit if a few award shows end up not being televised. But the people who actually watch the awards do.

I don't know. I want to say I still support you. Honestly, I really do. But I can't say that anymore without feeling a little dishonest. Now, I know that it is not easy for you out on the picket lines, not making any money, but it just feels like you stabbed your fans in the back on this one. And, well, I feel betrayed. As much as I want to blame the AMPTP for this, I just can't escape the fact that even the most resonable person would realize that this is mostly the fault of the WGA. I guess what I'm saying is that I am very disappointed. You let me, and the other fans down.

I still want you to get a fair contract. I still hope that when this strike is over, everything will go back to normal, and we can all forget this ever happened. It's just that I feel my support for you getting smaller every day, and I just don't know what to do about it. More and more I feel my allegiances shifting toward neutrality. And if the same thing happens to the Oscars, well, I don't know if there is going to be much support left.

Please. Make the right decision. Don't let us down again. And I hope you will all come out of this okay.

Dave MacIntosh:

Thomas,

You really should direct your frustration back at the AMPTP and the Studios & Networks. By not settling with the writers, they are losing more money than it would cost them to sign the deal that the WGA put on the table.

If your employer tried to change the terms and reduce your salary, would you just say "okay" and roll over so that you wouldn't impact other people? Although I don't know you personally, I assume you would not take it, and you would stand up to your employer.

The writers want to write their shows. They want to keep new episodes coming for the fans, but the AMPTP, networks & studios aren't playing fair.

Robert:

I too sided with the writers, initially. But as my small company's revenue shrunk and several of my staffers had to go, I seem to have lost my sense of sympathy. As holiday credit card bills start rolling in, I am sure more than a few writers will be questioning WGA leaders.

Maybe it's time for a Papal Conclave. Lock everybody in a room with one bathroom and onion and anchovy pizza. No one comes out until the smoke turns white. Once the onions and anchovies hit, agreement should come quickly.

Will:

Some of you clearly aren't understanding the situation. The writers are READY to return to work and sign a fair agreement for you oh so mistreated fans...

The AMPTP has walked out of negotiations.

WGA is waiting for them to return to the table... not the other way around.

Phil:

I like a good pizza from time to time and will be the first to admit I don’t know how rich the AMPTP members are getting and how financially abused the writers are with their slice of the pizza pie. Thus the strike and I understand it. If money is being made in mediums where the writers work is being exploited, there needs to be a fair share of the prize distributed. Again, I don’t know the mechanics. Is the AMPTP entering into mediums with a negative cash flow to build up revenues in a shared medium? Are the writers footing their share for that and or just want the profitable part of the business? These are questions to be hammered out between the two groups.

To be honest, as a viewer, I’m perfectly happy to wait for an equitable agreement before my “entertainment” needs have to be fulfilled but…When stagehands, production crews and other peripheral players are losing their jobs as an unintended consequence, someone needs to step up and make things happen. Unfortunately, as the posts above have demonstrated, the writers have become or are increasingly being viewed as the “bad guys”. As a strategy change, I would recommend an end to the strike and implement a work “slowdown”. Feed the networks enough work to barely feed a limited production schedule and put the ball in their court to stop production and take responsibility for any lay-offs etc. Just enough scripts to make it their call to pull production. Additionally, I would make sure my leadership took an honest and fair looks at the AMPTP monetary arguments and not try and get more than you would give up but no less than they would take should the roles be reversed.

Good luck to both parties and try to remember the lives you are affecting in a personal and substantial way as you work through this issue. Those of us who are tired of reruns will get over it…but keep an eye on those others with no stake in this race who have mortgages and ends to meet. Good writing play’s a huge part in the make or break of a show but it’s a team effort.

Another personal observation, the late night hosts are doing what the people who pay the bills (us lowly viewers) think was right. I think you should ease up on Leno et al and if not allow actors on his show…at least support the humanity of their difficult decision. I would prefer support but accept tolerance. Again, good luck.

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