UPDATE 1-U.S. viewers miss late-night gags as strike bites

Thu Nov 15, 2007 9:04pm EST

(Adds Variety report on talk show talks)

By Sue Zeidler

LOS ANGELES Nov 15 (Reuters) - As the Hollywood writers' strike winds through a second week, many American viewers are missing the political satire they've come to love on late-night talk shows, but otherwise appear unconcerned.

"The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," "Saturday Night Live," and shows hosted by David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien -- which riff on the day's headlines and thus require close-to-airdate writing -- are the main casualties of the strike that started on Nov. 5.

"I have no idea what's going on in the world since I can't get my 'Colbert Report' and 'The Daily Show'. I'm completely lost," said Michael Mandelberg, a Los Angeles-based irrigation consultant.

But aside from reruns of the late-night shows and daily newscasts of the screenwriters' picket lines, little has changed for American TV viewers. And an opinion poll by Malibu-based Pepperdine University shows that so far, audiences don't really care.

The survey of 1,000 adults conducted online by market research firm Synovate from Nov. 7 through Nov. 9 found that 75 percent are not very concerned or not concerned at all about the TV-viewing implications of the writers strike.

But industry watchers believe public sentiment will change if the work stoppage drags on. The strike has come just as the race heats up for the November 2008 presidential election -- a rich source of jokes at candidates' expense.

"If it goes beyond a month, viewers will start tuning out, and my guess is that online viewing and advertising will rise, said veteran media analyst Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management. "The biggest risk broadcasters face is losing valuable audience interest."

Hollywood trade paper Daily Variety reported on Thursday that representatives for several late-night shows were quietly discussing among themselves when it might be "appropriate" for their hosts to return to the air without their writing staffs.

Doing so would presumably require Letterman, Leno and their peers to work with less scripted material, perhaps with more time devoted to interviews. But the hosts have been supportive of their writers and none wants to be the first to cross picket lines to resume production.

Behind-the-scenes talks among them seemed aimed at reaching an informal agreement for at least two shows from separate networks returning at the same time, Variety said. But network executives with knowledge of the situation told Variety it was unlikely anything would happen before next month.

LOSING 'THE FIFTH ESTATE'

Some industry watchers doubt a months-long strike by the Writers Guild of America against the major studios would significantly affect the public's viewing habits.

Andrew Lipsman of comScore Inc, an Internet tracking research company, said there was no evidence to suggest that there will be any dramatic increase of Internet usage if television is disrupted by the walkout.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, agreed. "I think the strike will be an invitation to channel surf," he said.

But Thompson said the absence of fresh late-night political discourse should not be underestimated. He said these shows have become more popular as dissatisfaction with mainstream news and coverage of the Iraq war has grown.

That is one big difference from the last big Hollywood strike in 1988, which lasted 22 weeks, when talk show hosts like David Letterman were still shying away from politics.

"Comedy Central (which carries "The Daily Show," and "The Colbert Report") has become the Fifth Estate, taking the Fourth Estate to task for not doing their due diligence on the first three estates," he said. "It's unfortunate these voices have been silenced one year ahead of the presidential election."

The Pepperdine study found 40 percent of Americans would watch reruns in lieu of first-run shows, 42 percent would read more and 35 percent would surf the Web.

"I used to watch Jay Leno for his monologue because he makes fun of the current events, but it's all repeats now, so I just turn off the TV and read a book instead," said Tina Grant, a California entrepreneur.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Stuart Grudgings)

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