It’s been nearly a month since the bulk of TV’s talkers came back to the airwaves, many of them flaunting the still-active Writers Guild of America strike. David Letterman’s “Late Show” and Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” (both of which are produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company) were able to negotiate an independent contract with the Writers Guild, allowing them to operate with their writing staffs and without union pickets on their sidewalks. The rest of the lot--including Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, John Stewart and Steven Colbert--have had to do without benefit of the union blessing, making for a whole list of winners and losers.
Jay Leno. At first, it looked as if Letterman would be the most obvious winner in this race. His show’s ratings were up during the strike-forced reruns, and he’s the only major player with his full writing staff. But when everyone came back to the air on Jan. 2, Leno pulled in 5.3 percent of households, while Letterman lured only 4.4 percent. Both were season high numbers for the hosts, but it was clear all those who drifted over to Letterman during the reruns raced back to Leno. Since then, Leno has held strong. Despite flak from the Writers Guild, Leno is penning all his own monologues. He’s even returned to trademark bits like “Headlines” with no marked dip in quality, pre- or post-strike. If you thought he was funny in September, you’ll think he’s funny in February. So long as the fatigue of writing dozens of jokes a day doesn’t kill him, Leno’s the king of the mountain here.
Politicians. Since most Screen Actors Guild members are refusing to cross picket lines in sympathy, the vast majority of talk shows have had a hard time booking guests, leaving guys like Leno juggling a familiar roster of politicians, musicians and zoo directors. John Stewart and Steven Colbert have adjusted well, considering politicians and pundits were the bulk of their invitees anyway. But the biggest winners here are the candidates themselves. The Democratic and Republican primaries are certainly the story of the day, and TV talk shows are providing presidential wannabes with some of their best exposure.
John Stewart. Frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise that Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” came back. They’re not really talk shows, but news-centric sketch comedies, heavily reliant on writers. Since they’ve reappeared, it’s a bit unclear who’s actually writing the shows. Stewart and Colbert obviously aren’t ad-libbing their way through it all. Stewart in particular looks worn out. His humor has been notably crankier since his return. He’s still occasionally quite funny, but he doesn’t seem all that happy, making the long-term success of “The Daily Show” sans writers (currently downgraded to simply “A Daily Show”) questionable.
Hollywood studios. Hollywood in general has lost millions over this strike, but the studios have suffered even more from the loss of talk shows. Since actors won’t cross the picket lines, movies have gone without a source of free promotion for months.