Late-Night TV Awakens, With And Without Writers

NEW YORK On the PR front in the writers’ strike, the return of late-night talk shows last week was a clear win for the writers. Most of the returning hosts voiced strong support for the strike, now entering its tenth week. But industry analysts agreed it would take more than negative publicity to persuade networks and studios to return to the bargaining table.

Of all the hosts, David Letterman was the most direct in assailing broadcasters’ continued unwillingness to negotiate with writers. His first original Top 10 list after nearly two months centered on the demands of striking writers, with the No. 1 demand reading, “Producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses.”

Letterman came back on the air with a clear advantage over his competitors, having had his production company, Worldwide Pants, negotiate a separate deal with the Writers Guild of America to allow writers to return to both CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, which Worldwide Pants also produces.

But even without the benefit of writers, NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, which has led the daypart since 1995, maintained a significant lead over its CBS rival. The Tonight Show averaged 7.7 million viewers, while Letterman averaged 5.5 million viewers. Ratings for both shows were the best of the season so far, with each benefiting from heightened curiosity among viewers, since the strike forced late-night programs into repeats last November.

Almost all the other late-night programs benefited as well. NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien averaged 2.8 million viewers, marking a 55 percent increase over season-to-date averages. CBS’ The Late Late Show averaged 2.2 million viewers, up 31 percent. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live drew 1.8 million viewers, down 5 percent. Although still strong, ratings for Thursday night’s shows dropped somewhat. Leno garnered almost 5.2 million viewers, followed by Letterman with 4.7 million, O’Brien (2.3 million), Ferguson (1.9 million) and Kimmel (1.3 million).

Without writers, it is unclear whether Leno can maintain his lead over Letterman for the duration of the strike. Having negotiated with the WGA gives Letterman and Ferguson an advantage in terms of creating original material for their programs and opens their doors to celebrities who may be unwilling to cross the picket lines at competing shows. Ferguson shrugged off such advantages, telling viewers, “This show will be the same lame crap as always.”

But, seriously, several advertisers said that if hosts of struck shows are forced to rely on their own skills to fill their hours, and if actors choose to avoid crossing picket lines, ratings could suffer. “If a consistent pattern emerges in which the NBC programs’ monologues and skits are substandard, and few, if any, compelling guests will sit on the couch, there will be less reason to watch,” said John Rash, Campbell Mithun’s chief broadcast negotiator.

However, even if viewers start tuning Leno out, the WGA is sure to keep watching. Concerns already have arisen that Leno’s returning monologue violated guild rules, because Leno actually wrote jokes for the monologue. In fact, the late-night comic admitted as much in that Jan. 2 monologue, saying, “We are not using outside guys. We are following the guild thing… We can write for ourselves.”

But according to the WGA’s comedy/variety strike rules, performers such as Leno cannot write for themselves. The rules, which were distributed to all comedy/variety hosts before the strike began, “prohibit guild members from performing any writing services during a strike for any and all struck companies. This prohibition includes all writing by a guild member that would be performed on-air by that member (including monologues, characters and featured appearances) if any portion of that written material is customarily written by striking writers.”

Indeed, the day after Leno made those remarks in his monologue, the WGA released a statement saying, “A discussion took place today between Jay Leno and the Writers Guild to clarify to him that writing for The Tonight Show constitutes a violation of the guild’s strike rules.”

The impact the late-night wars will have on the strike remains uncertain. Even if Letterman can capitalize on his deal with the WGA, it is unlikely that other TV production companies will follow suit. Most are tied to one of the five major studios—Warner Bros. TV, 20th Century Fox TV, ABC Studios, Universal Media Studios and Sony Pictures TV—effectively barring them from independent negotiation.

Michael Winship, president of the WGA East, said that any ongoing negotiations with independent production companies are taking place more on the feature film side of the entertainment business than on TV.

“There are some smaller companies that produce programming for the broadcast networks and cable who have expressed interest in making a deal,” he said. “But our dilemma is whether those companies are significantly of a size that could make a chink in the armor.”

What’s more, as long as late night continues to bring in ad dollars, the networks have little reason to rethink their strike strategies. If that revenue dwindles, however, then the networks might begin to think twice about negotiating with writers.

“Jay [Leno] may look good now,” said Shari Anne Brill, svp, director of programming at Carat USA. “But let’s say a month down the road, if the show starts to wear thin, and ratings are impacted, that could force a return to the bargaining table.”