Late-night hosts back on schedule; viewers may be tough to get back

by Phil Rosenthal

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

3 January 2008


Dave, Jay, Jimmy, Conan and Craig all returned to work Wednesday. Jon and Stephen are supposed to return Monday. And if you don’t know their last names, you probably don’t care or didn’t notice that they have been relegated to reruns the last two months.

The boys of late night are coming back because the writing is on the wall, if not on all the cue cards: The longer they stayed away the less they were likely to be missed. Now that they’re back, will viewers return as well?

After months of trying to support their staffs while the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers bickered with the striking Writers Guild of America, two months in which surely some people remembered just how productive they can be if they get to bed a little earlier or even just after “Nightline,” it was time.

“With all the late-night shows off the air, Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another, which has been horrifying,” Conan O’Brien joked Wednesday on NBC’s “Late Night,” presumably off the cuff, sporting a beard he grew “out of solidarity for my writers, and to prove that I have some testosterone.”

David Letterman, with his own strike beard, returned to his “Late Show” stage with leggy dancers carrying picket signs in support of the striking writers. “I know what you’re thinking,” Letterman said, referring to his facial growth. “You think Dave looks like a cattle-drive cook.”

Letterman and Craig Ferguson have their regular writers because Letterman, unlike the others, owns his CBS show and Ferguson’s and was able to negotiate directly with the guild. That kind of flexibility comes with a price, however; his company has had to pick up the costs of the shows being dark all this time, from salaries to the leasing of studio space.

NBC’s O’Brien and Jay Leno and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel have to wing it, as will Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert next week, because their respective networks own their respective shows and the striking writers don’t have much respect for the networks, and vice versa.

The viewing public, meanwhile, has grown increasingly ambivalent during the strike, especially toward NBC’s leading late-night lineup.

Top-rated Leno, whose viewership was down 10 percent year-to-year before the writers walked, is now down around 25 percent, with 4.4 million viewers, compared to last season, according to Nielsen Media Research estimates. The numbers for O’Brien, whom NBC already has anointed as Leno’s “Tonight Show” successor next year, are down 29 percent from last season, to 1.8 million viewers, just above the 1.7 million viewers for CBS’ Ferguson.

Letterman, whose prestrike numbers were down 9 percent from a year earlier, is off 15 percent, to 3.6 million viewers, enabling him to cut into Leno’s lead. Meanwhile, ABC’s Kimmel, benefiting from having unaffected “Nightline” as his lead-in in most markets and perhaps from the fact that viewers haven’t seen his show that much before, has had his reruns actually pick up a few viewers from last season and now has 1.8 million viewers.

Initially, there’s likely to be rubber-necking to see just what the writerless hosts can do without prepared material and the forgiving amusement that typically greets an improv troupe working without a script or a net. Leno, O’Brien, Kimmel, Colbert and Stewart are all solid comedians, but their programs have been geared to chew up comedy and spit it out at a torrid pace a human would be hard-pressed to sustain for an hour, let alone an hour night after night after night.

These shows have to be different, and the success or failure is apt to depend on how vulnerable the hosts allow themselves to seem.

For Leno, who affected a loud, manic delivery en route to becoming No. 1 in late-night talk, telling jokes the way a sprinkler waters grass, there is a great opportunity to throttle down and truly connect with his guests - and audience - through real conversations rather than mere set-ups. That’s something he has done only rarely in recent years, usually when discussing something he actually cares about, like movies with reviewers Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper.

Part of the handicap for him and others the guild is still picketing is whether first-rate guests will visit. Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who visited Leno on Wednesday, had said he supports the writers and didn’t believe he would be crossing a picket line. The strikers outside NBC’s Burbank, Calif., studios should have disabused him of that notion. One picket sign, according to The Associated Press, said, “Huckabee is a scab.”

Striking writers also marched outside NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, where O’Brien taped his show with guests that included former “Full House” star Bob Saget.

Letterman’s return Wednesday, which featured Robin Williams, opened with Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, on tape from Iowa. “Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike,” Clinton said. “Tonight, he’s back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end.”

It’s expected that Letterman’s show will enable his writers to tee off on the producers alliance, as they did with a top 10 list of strike demands, which included “Hazard pay for breaking up fights on `The View.’” Throughout the strike, they have had a Web site - LateShowWritersOnStrike.com - that offers a taste of what’s likely to come with their return.

O’Brien made a point to indicate on the air that he supports his writers and their cause. “These are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard and I believe what they’re asking for is fair,” he said. “My biggest wish is that they get a great deal very quickly and get back here because we desperately need them on the show.”

Just how desperately will be clear enough in short order.

Decades ago, back when Jack Benny and Fred Allen were among broadcasting’s reigning comedians, the two staged a friendly radio feud, trading wisecracks at every opportunity. Once, having been zinged on Allen’s show, Benny paused a beat as if exasperated and famously responded: “You wouldn’t dare say that if my writers were here.”

Come to think of it, though, a writer probably came up with that.

//Mixed media