Late-night hosts calculate losses from writers' strike

Stewart and Colbert not out of pocket because Comedy Central is picking up the writers’ tab

By Bill Carter
International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK Few of the hosts of television's late-night entertainment in the United States are turning up in their offices these days because there's nothing for them to do.

The strike by the Writers Guild has shut down television's favorite late-night shows, leaving the hosts to spend their days calling around to their agents and friends to check out the latest rumors - and their financial advisers to determine how much the strike is costing them.

It is not only lost income that now has to be factored into those financial assessments. The strike has become a serious financial drain for at least four of the eight hosts who have stayed off the air, because they have stepped in to pay the salaries of their non-writing staff members, who otherwise would be laid off while the strike lasts.

David Letterman of "The Late Show" on CBS, Jay Leno of "The Tonight Show" on NBC, Conan O'Brien of "Late Night" on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC have all committed to pay their staffs out of their own funds. In Letterman's case, he is paying for two CBS shows, since his company, Worldwide Pants, also owns "The Late Late Show," starring Craig Ferguson.

Estimates of what it is costing each host range from about $150,000 a week to as high as $250,000 a week, depending on the size of the staff.

Two other late-night stars, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, have so far been spared, because the cable network that airs their programs, Comedy Central, has picked up the tab. The network said this week that it would probably keep paying at least through next week.

The financial impact on the networks that broadcast the shows has been largely muted so far, although ratings have generally been off. Among viewers 18 to 49 years old, Leno was down 19 percent and O'Brien was down 14 percent, but Letterman was actually up 4 percent over the past few weeks, according to Nielsen estimates.
One show representative said CBS and NBC were both saving more than $1 million a week in costs for Leno's and Letterman's shows and were still taking in significant revenue from advertisers for the repeats that have been running.

A crunch may come for the networks, the representative said, if the strike is prolonged and the shows return to diminished ratings. Then a network might have to lower ad rates for future editions of the shows.

The same show representative said that, so far, the networks had been applying only moderate pressure to get back on the air. "They understand the situation these guys are in, that they want to be good guys to both their writers and their staffs," the representative said.

The question the hosts are struggling with is how long they can continue to stay off the air and subsidize their staffs, and what happens when they decide they cannot do it anymore.

None of the late-night hosts has yet made a move to return to the air, and according to representatives of several hosts, none is likely to do so as long as negotiations to end the strike continue.

"We all want the strike to end with good news for everybody," one show representative said.

Those talks resumed Tuesday, but no particular movement was reported by either side.

The writers went on strike Nov. 5, after three months of negotiations failed to bridge the differences between the producers and the 12,000 writers represented by the Writers Guild West and Writers Guild East. The main stumbling block was how much writers would be compensated for their work delivered over the Internet and through other new media.

Writers have been demanding payments for electronic downloads many times higher than the companies initially offered and have sought to limit promotional showings to a matter of days, at most.
The hosts are facing a dilemma that could come if the talks were to break down. The hosts, all of whom are members of the Writers Guild themselves, have made it clear that they are seriously reluctant to go against their writers, whose cause they all support. But faced with the prospect of a prolonged strike, representatives of several of the late-night hosts said they would at least contemplate the wrenching decision to go back to work.

"If the talks fail, we'd consider it," said one late-night show representative. Like all the others, the representative asked not to be identified so as not to alienate the writers, who have made it clear they will respond critically to any host who does return to the air before a settlement of the strike.

"There's obviously going to be a limit to how long the hosts can continue to pay out of their own pockets to keep their staff together," the late-night representative said.

That limit could vary greatly from host to host. Letterman is the best paid among them, making about $35 million a year. Some of the other hosts are making single-digit millions - still a lot of money, but obviously not enough to pay out hundreds of thousands a week indefinitely, especially while the hosts themselves are going without pay during the strike. Letterman announced to his staff that his company would write checks for them at least through Jan. 7; one company representative said that did not mean that Letterman would not return to the air before then.

Letterman, who originally was cited as the most likely star to lead a return to the air, given his seniority as a late-night host, is said by some of those close to him to be especially reluctant to be the first host back. (Leno became host of "The Tonight Show" in 1992 and Letterman of "The Late Show" in 1993, but Letterman had been NBC's late-late night host since 1982.) During the 1988 writers' strike, Johnny Carson, then the longest-tenured host, was the first to return, and Letterman followed his lead.

"Even if one of the others breaks," one of Letterman's representatives said, "I don't think Dave will go back right away."

A different host was wavering a bit more, largely out of concern about staff members who have no stake in the strike, everyone from segment producers to office assistants. This host, who also requested anonymity so as not to offend his writers, noted that some writers for films or prime-time television shows have been allowed to perform non-writing duties during the strike, like directing or acting, without protest from the Guild. He asked why hosts who did no writing but only interviewing would face criticism.

Two hosts of similar-style shows who have returned to the air already, Ellen DeGeneres and Carson Daly, have been assailed by the writers for doing so.

DeGeneres argued that her syndication contract requires her to deliver shows to the stations that have purchased it, and that she was contractually obligated to go back to work. DeGeneres abandoned a plan to do a week of shows in New York after learning that picketers would greet her.

"We kept her out of New York," said Sherry Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Writers Guild East.

Daly is not a Guild member, though his show employs Guild writers.

"We think he should have supported his writers," Goldman said. "When he went back, he was picketed and harassed."

That is exactly the kind of treatment many of the late-night hosts expect would happen to any of them — with some reason. "I can't say we would be happy if any of them went back," Goldman said.

"If they go back, they are going to be prolonging the strike."

They also might have some trouble finding guests to interview.

"All the publicists are telling us their stars won't cross a picket line," a show representative said. "It's going to be tough booking people."
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