THURSDAY 2ND UPDATE: NBC Claims “Leno Can Write Own Monologue”; WGA Says He Can’t But Doesn’t Want War
THURSDAY UPDATE: I had a feeling this controversy not only isn’t going away but will probably deepen over the next days — and it has. The Writers Guild Of America just confirmed that “a discussion took place today between [its member] Jay Leno and the Writers Guild to clarify to him that writing for The Tonight Show constitutes a violation of the Guilds’ strike rules.” Leno admitted last night on the air during his first show back from strike hiatus that he wrote his own monologue. That’s a huge problem because it violates the strike rules of one of his unions, the WGA, which is currently on strike and picketing NBC and Leno’s Tonight Show. Meanwhile, early ratings for late night TV’s return show that Jay scored a 5.3 rating and 12 audience share in the nation’s 55 largest markets for his best ratings in two years, according to Nielsen Media Research. Leno’s ratings were up 47% over what he achieved before the strike. Meanwhile, David Letterman’s Late Show had a 4.3 rating and 10 share, or 39% better than his pre-strike average. I don’t find this surprising, since Leno had been consistently beating Letterman for years and TV viewing habits don’t change overnight. Plus, there was the “car wreck” phenomenon at work and audiences may have wanted to watch how The Tonight Show would fare without writers. I can’t help but think that Leno knows full well he could lose viewers if he stops his topical monologue altogether (which is what Conan O’Brien appeared to do last night). So will Jay keep writing his signature stand-up opening? Stay tuned.
WEDNESDAY PM: Leno did deliver what was a funny monologue. So the big question was who wrote it: WGA members or scabs (i.e. the usual contingent of joke writers who hang out around Jay’s kitchen table)? Leno addressed that very issue during the monologue: “You know what I’m doing? I’m doing what I did the day I started. I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, is this funny?’ So if this monologue doesn’t work it’s my wife’s fault,” he explained. “We are not using outside guys. We are following the guild thing… We can write for ourselves…”
Earth To Leno: That’s not the way the WGA interprets its strike rules as spelled out here: “The Strike Rules, among other provisions, prohibit Guild members from performing any writing services during a strike for any and all struck companies. This prohibition includes all writing by any Guild member that would be performed on-air by that member (including monologues, characters, and featured appearances) if any portion of that written material is customarily written by striking writers.” (See my previous: WGA Reminds Returning Jay And Conan: No Monologues.)
Now the question is what will the WGA do about it? The irony is that Leno last night sounded so proud of the jokes he claimed to have written for his monologue. Jay’s in a tough spot, to be sure: after years of beating Dave week after week, Leno could fall to No. 2 now that he’s doing The Tonight Show without his writing team because NBC won’t bargain with the striking writers. Whereas Letterman’s production company Worldwide Pants owns The Late Show (not CBS) and negotiated an interim waiver from the WGA allowing Dave to return on air with his writing team intact. Sure Leno’s ratings may stay the same or even go up as audiences anticipate a potential on-air train wreck. But can they stay there? Will America’s late night viewing habits change? And will NBC suffer?
What makes the situation even trickier is that Leno has been very supportive of his own picketing writers and the entire WGA since the strike began two months ago (see photo above) by delivering food and drinks to the scribes walking the line. So the WGA, which has made it clear it’s picketing NBC and not Leno, may not want to make an example of a high-profile member like Jay for breaking its strike rules.