What Letterman's and Leno's Return to TV Means David Letterman, Jay Leno and three other talk-show hosts were back on the air for the first time in two months Wednesday night. With and without writers, the shows drew record ratings. Andrew Wallenstein of the Hollywood Reporter and NPR's Kim Masters break down what their return means.

What Letterman's and Leno's Return to TV Means

What Letterman's and Leno's Return to TV Means

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Letterman's return to TV was full of jokes about his new beard. Courtesy CBS hide caption

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Courtesy CBS

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David Letterman, Jay Leno and three other talk-show hosts were back on the air for the first time in two months Wednesday night.

Viewers, it seemed, were eager for their return; Leno drew the highest ratings in two years, Letterman marked a season best and Conan O'Brien more than doubled his usual audience, according to Nielson ratings.

Ironically, having writers did not necessarily help ratings — the writerless Leno and O'Brien benefited more from the show's return than did Letterman or Craig Ferguson. What does a talk-show without writers really mean, though, and how was Letterman able to take back his writers, when the strike is still going strong?

Andrew Wallenstein, an editor for the Hollywood Reporter and NPR's Kim Masters break down the latest for Day to Day.

The writers are still striking Leno and O'Brien on NBC and Kimmel on ABC, but Letterman and Ferguson on CBS had their writers back, what happened?

"Letterman, who has his own production company World Wide Pants, struck a separate deal with the Writers Guild that covers both his show and Ferguson. He was able to do that because he owns both those shows," Wallenstein says.

That's not the case over at NBC with Leno and O'Brien or at ABC with Kimmel because those late-night shows are just a small piece of a much larger, more complicated negotiation, he adds.

How were the shows last night?

"Everyone had this sort of air of grandstanding last night. These hosts understood they were under a microscope and I think everyone brought their A-game," he says.

If he had to pick a late-night winner, he says, it would be Leno.

"He tried to make it seem like it was just a regular show. He referred to the strike, but at the end of the day he just wanted to make us laugh."

Leno performed his traditional monologue. Isn't that a violation of the strike?

"People in the guild are probably asking themselves that very question right now," Wallenstein says.

How did David Letterman and Craig Ferguson address the strike?

"Even though Letterman and Ferguson have this deal, they were just as self-conscious about the whole thing. Letterman worked the strike into every inch of his show and Ferguson also did something interesting — he had no guests," he says.

Gov. Huckabee was a guest on Leno. How did that go?

"He did fine. He actually mixed with Leno's band for a bit. He picked up a guitar and there were shades of Bill Clinton back in '92 on Arsenio," Wallenstein says.

Others were not as happy with Huckabee, he says. When Huckabee was talking to reporters early in the day about appearing on Leno, he said he would do the show because Leno had struck a special agreement with the writers. Of course he didn't — that was Letterman — and the press and members of the Writers Guild picked up on that.

Can the late-night shows last without writers?

"It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their vitality, especially on the unscripted side ... you saw the way Conan O'Brien was sort of manically rapping all night. Can he keep up his energy level day-in and day-out?"

We are almost two months into it, any movement at all?

"I think at this point, the networks would rather undergo extreme torture than give the Writers Guild any kind of deal," Masters says. "In all of these things, there is always an element of emotion. I think the networks are really mad at the writers and they don't want to give the writers a deal. Period."

What happens if we don't see a resolution anytime soon?

The fear I think in the community is that this is not only destroying the current season, but also next season.

"The networks still have billions of dollars in it," Masters says. "To torpedo that seems like something they might want to think about."