Late-Night Shows to Work Around Writers Strike

Despite the ongoing screenwriters' strike, NBC's late-night shows hosted by Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien will go on in January. On CBS, David Letterman hopes to return but may be able to keep his writers. Letterman — not CBS — owns the company that produces his show.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Despite the ongoing screenwriters' strike, television is getting some of its late shows back. NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien will go on at the beginning of January, but without the support of their writing staffs. Over at CBS, David Letterman hopes to return, too, and he may be able bring his writers with him.

NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS: Back in October, David Letterman told his audience that the impeding strike would not be pretty.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Late Show with David Letterman")

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, "Late Show with David Letterman"): Ladies and gentlemen, I'm told that this could be our last show before the television writers go on strike. So, now, that's going to be an awful thing because you think this show is not funny now, wait until the writers go on strike.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LETTERMAN: I mean, it really won't be funny. It'd just be me.

MASTERS: In reality, the all the big late-night hosts refused to cross picket lines, and their shows immediately went into repeats. The hosts have supported their writers by paying them out of their own pockets, and in other ways. Here's Jay Leno visiting picketers outside the gates of NBC studios.

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): Am I being funny right now? No, because I don't have anybody writing anything for me. See? They're all standing around. So if the writers are actually working, I would be hilarious.

MASTERS: But with the strike grinding on for six weeks now, both Leno and O'Brien said in statements that they want to get dozens of producers and crew members back to work. Of course, that won't include their writers.

Jeff Ross, executive producer of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," could not say what the show will be like without them.

Mr. JEFF ROSS (Executive Producer, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien"): To be honest with you, I'm not sure yet. It's going to look a little different. And we're in the process of - today, now that we're starting to get the staff back - to figure it out.

MASTERS: In the wake of the announcement, the Writer's Guild pointed to strike rules saying that members may not perform material that normally would be written by a writing staff. That means neither Leno nor O'Brien should do a previously written monologue.

But Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive in charge of the late night shows, says the hosts still can talk.

Mr. RICK LUDWIN: (Vice President, National Broadcasting Company): They're going to say things that are amusing, but they will not be written by Guild writers.

MASTERS: Conan O'Brien said his show won't be as good without the writers. But executive producer Jeff Ross maintains that much of the show won't be affected.

Mr. ROSS: The guest segments, which are probably 60 percent of these shows, are not written by the Writers Guild writers.

MASTERS: With the writers on strike, it's not clear who the guests will be. Many likely candidates are members of the Screen Actors' Guild, which is supporting the writers. So if writers protest outside the show, some actors may decline to cross the picket line. But Ross doesn't expect picketing.

Mr. ROSS: We're not bringing in writers to a write show - non-Guild writers to write a show. We're doing a non-written version of this show.

MASTERS: One thing is clear: Both Leno and O'Brien are likely to use their shows to highlight their support for the striking writers.

Mr. LUDWIN: The world will be aware that there's a writers' strike going on, believe me.

MASTERS: NBC's Rick Ludwin.

Mr. LUDWIN: It's the job of any of these hosts, even going back to Johnny Carson and Jack Paar and Steve Allen, to make fun of what is in the news. And this writers' strike is fair game and will be talked about on the shows. That's the way it should be.

MASTERS: David Letterman is also hoping to return - with his writers. NBC owns its late night programs, but Letterman, not CBS, owns the company that produces his show. So the Writers Guild could give his company an interim deal, allowing his writers to work. Some in the Guild wants to show their willingness to bargain by granting that waiver. Others think it would be unfair to let Letterman's writers work while Leno's must walk the picket line.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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