NEW YORK After eight weeks away due to the writers' strike, 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 Writers Guild of America. Both shows were up about 2 million viewers from their pre-strike season averages.
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.
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, Leno reportedly contacted Verrone to remind him of their verbal agreement, and in the conversation, the host reaffirmed his support for the strike but also reiterated that he would continue to write monologues. He did so for the Thursday show.
What writing duties late-night show hosts can perform during a strike has been the subject of different interpretations.
The guild 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.