TV hosts return to work as union targets Oscars

Late-night TV comedians Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien said on Monday they will resume taping their shows on January 2, and cross picket lines if necessary, after nearly two months off the air in support of striking film and television writers.

Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of America opened another front in Hollywood’s worst labor clash in 20 years, announcing later in the day that it would not allow producers of the Golden Globe Awards to hire writers for their ceremony on January 13. The union also rejected a request by Oscar organisers to use clips from movies and past shows during their presentation on February 24.

The union said it would picket various awards ceremonies, a move that puts nominees and celebrities in a difficult spot: show up to receive acclaim for their hard work and artistry or stay home in solidarity with the scribes.

The decision by Leno and O’Brien to go back to work shows that solidarity has its limits. They said they were returning for the sake of scores of co-workers idled by the strike.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O’Brien will resume production without their writers, who presumably will still be on strike, NBC said.

The Tonight Show and Late Night were among the strike’s first and highest-profile casualties, going into immediate reruns when the Writers Guild of America launched its walkout against major film and TV studios on November 5 in a dispute hinging on money paid for internet distribution.

Leno and O’Brien had resisted pressure from NBC to resume production even as ratings for reruns of their shows plunged.
But earlier this month negotiations to end the strike collapsed amid harsh rhetoric and finger-pointing from both sides.

“Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it’s my responsibility to get my 100 non-writing staff, which were laid off, back to work,” Leno said in a statement.

O’Brien said he, too, was acting for the good of his 80 non-writing employees, and acknowledged that his show “will not be as good” without his writing staff.

Supported by WGA

Leno, who replaced Johnny Carson as Tonight Show host in 1992, and O’Brien, who is slated to take Leno’s place on the number one US late-night show in 2009, both are WGA members, and both said they continue to support the union and its cause.

The WGA expressed sympathy for Leno and O’Brien, accusing NBC in its own statement of “forcing” the two hosts back on the air without writers.

“Jay and Conan have been supportive of us from the beginning, and we understand the pressure they’re under from NBC,” said WGA spokesperson Jeff Hermanson.

Leno also faces stiff competition from his longtime rival, CBS Late Show host David Letterman, who is expected to return soon with his writing staff intact.

Letterman, who owns his show, is negotiating an “interim agreement” with the WGA to allow his programme to resume taping.

Some experts suggested that the return of late-night TV hosts, whose sidelined shows were major symbols of the union’s clout, might actually be good for Writers Guild.

“I think when they go back on the air, they’re going to be tweaking the noses of their corporate bosses over the strike,” said lawyer Jonathan Handel, a former WGA co-counsel.

Leno and O’Brien’s producers acknowledged during a conference call with reporters that both shows, which usually feature a heavy dose of topical jokes and comedy bits, will be forced to get by with less scripted material, perhaps devoting more time to interviews and musical guests. - Reuters

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