Is the Writers' Strike Over?

Is the Hollywood writers' strike finally coming to an end now that Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are back? Not likely. Come January, viewers will still be stuck with reruns of "House" and "The Closer." But night owls will once again have a reason to stay tuned as comedians Leno and O'Brien will be back on the air live Jan. 2 with new episodes of their NBC shows. While they're crossing the picket line, neither host will actually write new material, even their opening monologues. Instead, they'll be improvising their respective shticks and winging their interviews. But at least viewers will no longer have to put up with Leno's puffy 1990s hairstyle and the ups and downs of his weight-loss regimen, so evident in old reruns.

Although comedians like Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have yet to signal their intentions, few in Hollywood believe that other variety hosts will follow suit or that Leno and O'Brien's decision marked a blow to the Writers Guild of America, which struck on Nov. 5. "They are going back without writers," says veteran television writer and producer Saul Turteltaub, writer and producer of "Kate and Allie" and "Love, American Style" and has been through several strikes during his nearly five-decade career. "Everyone is still supporting the guild's policy. I'm picketing every day, and I have not heard one word of complaint. The coffee and doughnuts are still good."

In fact, Leno and O'Brien's move may end up bolstering the position of striking entertainment writers rather than hastening an end to their nearly two-month-old strike. Both are guild members, and both indicated they intend to use their shows to vocally support the WGA, which is locked in a dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). At issue: how to divvy up lucrative profits from future online distribution of television and movies. Talks between the writers and the producers broke down Dec. 7 and haven't resumed. Picketing will break over the Christmas period but is set to resume in the new year.

Meanwhile, fellow writers express a good deal of understanding for the late-night stars' desire to save the nonwriting jobs on their two shows--about 100 for Leno and 80 for O'Brien. "They are doing the menschy thing, helping their people pay the rent," says Los Angeles comedy writer Cary Odes, who has a script optioned by Steven Spielberg. "It's no different than what Johnny Carson did in 1988 except that Carson wasn't a Writers' Guild member." Member reaction was harder on Ellen DeGeneres and Carson Daly, who resumed their talk shows within the first few weeks of the strike. The WGA East issued a tough statement saying DeGeneres was "not welcome" in New York when she went back on the air after a brief blackout. Union officials said they were "appalled" when Daly returned a few weeks later.

Leno and O'Brien both admit they may have a hard time keeping up the quality of their shows without writers--a reminder to the public about the crucial backstage role the joke writers play. "Of course, my show will not be as good," O'Brien said in a written statement. "In fact, in moments, it may well be terrible."

At the same time, direct competitors like "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" could make it back onto the air with their professional writing staffs intact. Letterman's company, Wordwide Pants, which owns both shows, has said it hopes to reach its own separate contract with the writers' union.

"The important news is that David Letterman is prepared to negotiate individually with the WGA," says J. B. White, a screenwriter and 13-year member of the writers' union. White says Leno and O'Brien couldn't do what Letterman wants to do because they don't own the companies they work for.

But if producers like Letterman pursue separate negotiations, it could strengthen the WGA position against the large entertainment conglomerates by showing them that writers can get back to work without them. Tony Segall, general counsel for the WGA's West Coast branch, says the group's national board has yet to decide whether it will forge a deal with Letterman. But Segall confirmed that the writers' union is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy of "reaching out" to major companies. "The goal isn't to sign contracts with individual small companies like Letterman's but to go for the major multimedia players," he told NEWSWEEK, although he refused to name which companies have been approached. "If the six conglomerates won't talk to us, we will seek out those who will." Key members of the AMPTP are Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Paramount, Sony and NBC Universal.

With no end in sight, Hollywood is now worried about the effect of the strike on the upcoming awards shows, which need writers too. The WGA has so far refused a request by Dick Clark Productions to negotiate a contract for writers to prepare the Golden Globes award show, which is scheduled for Jan. 13. And the writers' union refused a request by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to allow old movie and award-show clips to be used in its Oscar show this year, decisions which jeopardize both popular award shows.

While the AMPTP did not gloat about the imminent return of Leno and O'Brien, its spokesman was riled about the threat to the upcoming award shows. "The union, which initiated this strike, continues day in and day out to make good on its commitment to, in the words of a leading WGA organizer, 'wreak havoc,' even though those being hurt include WGA's own working writers," said AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand in a statement. Hiestand stresses that the guild itself ordered the strike, hurting "below-the-line workers and their families, the broader Los Angeles region--and now the creative artists who deserve to be honored for their work over the last year."

It's true that the strike has already caused collateral damage. Just as the strike began, Kit Stolz was laid off as screenplay reader from Paramount after working there for 23 years. "There's just not a lot of work. There are no scripts coming in," he says. Stolz sympathizes with the writers but believes the longer the strike lasts, the more devastation will be caused. "What worries me is the war effect. They go in with good intentions, but as in any protracted conflict, there will be more losers than winners," he says. "We're starting to see larger effects already. Who can remember the last time there [was] no Academy Awards program? But now that is looking dicey. There is going to be a lot of fallout if this continues beyond the beginning of the new year."

Stolz says he is excited by Letterman's initiative. "His show could be the must-see TV show if he can get his own contract."

Industry veterans like Turteltaub hopes the current strike won't last as long as the 1988 walkout, which dragged on for five months. "I am very disappointed in the people who are able to give away a few pennies and end this strike. It's time for somebody to do the right thing," he says.