Jay Leno: Is He Writing "Controversial" Monologues?

Jay Leno
Jay Leno

The late night shows had their second night return to the airwaves and the networks are glad they are back after the two month hiatus. Their first night brought whopper increases in ratings--Nielsen reporting that Jay Leno, who returned without his writing staff, had his best ratings in years, 47 percent higher than his pre-strike average.

Meanwhile Letterman, who had worked out a deal with his writers and had his usual staff, did 39 percent better than the show's pre-strike average. It seemed that Letterman's full staff would help him overtake a solo Leno in ratings, but surprise, surprise that didn't happen.

The other hosts working without writing staffs also got a boost: Conan O'Brien's NBC show saw ratings that were 56 percent higher than pre-strike numbers while Craig Ferguson on CBS, who like Letterman DOES have his writers, only saw a 27 percent boost. Are these guys funnier on their own?

People are clearly desperate for new entertainment--perhaps this is sending the message to the nets that if they could only get their popular scripted series back on the air, the ratings would be through the roof? (I'm just dying for all my favorite shows, I even trolled the network web sites last night hoping I'd missed one).

Ratings mean ad dollars, so all the networks are happy. But it's not so simple: the Writers Guild is giving NBC a REALLY hard time about Leno's "Tonight Show" jokes--it's pretty clear he's reading them off cue cards (as usual) which means that (gasp) someone actually put pen to paper.

The WGA says the fact that he's not improv-ing means that he's violating the strike agreement. Here's where it gets really complicated and I won't bore you with the details, but NBC says Leno got permission from the head of WGA West to write down his monologue. The WGA is saying that's not true, and because Leno is listed as a writer on the show under strike rules, he has to also strike.

Bottom line, it's a matter of interpretation, and as far as NBC is considered, Leno is a cash cow, and the show must go on. As the strike drags into its third month, I predict we'll see a lot more writers return to work, either by being upfront about their writing and forfeiting some of their guild rights, or by doing it under the table, working without those guild contracts, as I'm sure some already have.

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