Late Night TV Comes Back, and Dave Has His Writers With Him

Tonight marks a milestone in the nearly two-month-old Writers Guild of America strike against television and film producers: the major late night shows are all heading back into production. The Tonight Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel Live will air their first shows since the strike, and will do what their forebears did when the length of the 1988 WGA strike finally forced them back to work: try to get by without their writers.

The situation is very different at CBS. After a negotiation process that started with hope and then appeared to hit snags, the WGA reached a separate agreement late last week with Worldwide Pants, producers of The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Both these shows will return with their full complement of writers, giving them a critical advantage over the primary competition on NBC. Letterman was free to make this agreement because he owns his show and Ferguson's -- CBS, the company, remains as committed to the AMPTP position as ever. But the network certainly won't hesitate to press its competitive advantage in late night, something it has sought in vain since Leno first gained his steady ratings lead over Letterman over a decade ago.

The advantage comes first from the fact that Letterman and Ferguson will be putting on the show that viewers have come to expect. Despite the WGA ban on doing any work while on strike, one can imagine a lot of pent-up writers' energy is going to be vented in these early weeks back on the air. Secondly, Letterman is a cranky critic of corporate suits even when things are going well, so it stands to reason that he won't be shy about comedy that tweaks the producers while giving a nod in the direction of his writing staff and those still on strike. Third, for those in the audience who want to show support for the WGA, the CBS lineup becomes a safe way to do just that. Like so many of the striking writers, the Late Night staffers turned to the Web as their creative outlet in recent weeks, starting a comedy blog that attracted substantial attention, probably more attention than any of them ever had individually in their pre-strike days. Those who have become bonded to the writers will be more apt to want to follow them now back at their original jobs.

But the biggest advantage could come in that fiercest of all late night competitive arenas: the booking wars. The WGA won't have pickets up outside the Letterman and Ferguson shows; such pickets will be there for Leno, Kimmel, and O'Brien. The Screen Actors Guild, the WGA's most outspoken labor ally, is encouraging its membership to appear only on the CBS shows and to avoid crossing any picket line. While booking is typically not as frantic in January as it is during the December movie release season, Letterman and Ferguson will likely not have much trouble persuading WGA sympathizers in entertainment to appear on their shows. And the peer pressure to avoid crossing the picket line is profound.

The guest lists for the different shows tell the story. Letterman's first guest tonight will be Robin Williams, who is the sort of person Leno would have killed to have had because of his ability to fill blocks of time effortlessly. Red-hot Juno star Ellen Page and the always-caustic Bill Maher will appear tomorrow. The possibility of both Letterman and his various guests hammering on the producers night after night had to have been in the back of the WGA negotiators' minds as they worked out the deal with Worldwide Pants. As for Leno, his main guest tonight is Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who has a big voting day ahead of him in Iowa tomorrow, but whose main qualification for appearing on the first night back after a two-month Leno layoff is that he isn't a member of SAG.

Leno is, of course, notorious for his work ethic, and while filling five hours of time every week without his writing staff won't be easy, he probably faced tougher challenges in his days on the club circuit. But one wonders how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can possibly cope without their writers. Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report come back next Monday, just in time for the New Hampshire primary, which neither show will be able to come close to covering in its trademark fashion. It's possible both men can try to book more guests to make up for the lack of the usual fare, but their shows are likely to be picketed as well and will face many of the same booking issues even though they won't be trying to book actors.

The hope for the WGA is that viewers will note the superiority of the writers-and-all Letterman and Ferguson shows and flock to CBS. The competitive advantage the network thus derives will, in theory, be a prod to others who might be tempted to cut the hardliners loose and make their own deals with the WGA. The agreement with Worldwide Pants also serves to answer the growing criticism that while the union may have begun with the moral high ground, it had become unreasonable and too fixated on minor issues, thus putting the whole TV season and the jobs of thousands at risk. In announcing the deal, the WGA was at pains to say that Worldwide Pants had accepted the same terms that the producers had refused to even listen to when talks ended on December 7. If it's good enough for Dave, why not for everyone else, the guild can now ask.

It's probably too optimistic to see the return of the late night shows as the tentative thaw that will lead to an earlier-than-expected springtime of new, scripted TV. But it puts us in a better position than we were in a week ago. Baby steps are better than standing still.