TV hosts Leno, O'Brien to return despite strike

LOS ANGELES Mon Dec 17, 2007 4:59pm EST

1 of 2. Jim Shaughnessy (R on scooter), a writer for NBC's 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno', takes part in the picket line with other writers at NBC television network studios in Burbank, California November 5, 2007. Late-night TV hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien plan to cross picket lines to resume taping shows on January 2, nearly two months after the Hollywood writers strike forced them off the air, the NBC network said on Monday.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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.

With no end in sight to Hollywood's worst labor clash in 20 years, the hosts of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" said they were returning for the sake of scores of co-workers idled by the strike.

Both will renew production and broadcasts without their writers, who presumably will still be on strike, NBC said.

"The Tonight Show" and "Late Night" were among the first and highest-profile casualties of the strike, 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 with both sides bitterly blaming the other.

"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. "We fully support our writers and I think they understand my decision."

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. "In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible," he wrote.

Leno, who replaced Johnny Carson as "Tonight Show" host in 1992, and O'Brien, who is slated to take Leno's place on the No. 1 U.S. late-night show in 2009, both said they continue to support the WGA, to which they both belong, and its cause.

PUNCH LINE SHORTAGE?

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.

"It's going to be hard. We have 12 writers here normally," "Late Night" executive producer Jeff Ross said.

Writers Guild spokeswoman Sherry Goldman said O'Brien and Leno would be violating strike rules if they wrote monologues or other material normally handled by their writing staffs.

"They don't write their own comedy. They can't start now. That is struck work," she said.

"Tonight Show" executive producer Debbie Vickers said Carson and David Letterman did monologues when they went back to work during the 1988 writers strike under rules that allowed hosts to write and prepare their own material. But she said Leno would abide by whatever current union rules dictate.

In any case, NBC executive Rick Ludwin said there was little doubt that the General Electric Co.-owned network or its corporate parent would become the butt of on-air jokes as Leno and O'Brien comment on the strike.

Another potential hitch for both shows is the reluctance of some celebrities to cross picket lines in order to appear as guests during the strike. But as the walkout drags on "it does seems like people are warming to the idea," Vickers said.

Meanwhile, Leno's chief rival Letterman, who owns his own CBS show through his independent company WorldWide Pants, is seeking to negotiate an "interim agreement" with the WGA to allow his program to resume taping with the union's blessing.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Alan Elsner)

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