Show reps engage in secret backchannel talks

This article was updated at 9:02 p.m.

Talks are under way to bring the laughs back to latenight.

Reps for several of the major latenight skeins — including “Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” — have been engaging in secret back-channel conversations with one another about when it may be appropriate for their hosts to return to their studios.

It’s unlikely anything will happen until after Thanksgiving, however — and even that could be optimistic.

Still, according to several network execs with knowledge of the situation, there’s been talk of resuming production on some shows as early as next month, with Dec. 3 and Dec. 10 mentioned as possible return dates.

The problem with locking in a date: Nobody wants to be the first to go back.

What’s more, nobody wants to return too early, particularly if it appears a settlement to the strike could be at hand. But with most of Hollywood bracing for a lengthy work stoppage, producers have been forced to start talking about resuming their latenighters.

Toward that end, reps for the major broadcast network shows — but not the networks themselves — have been quietly feeling each other out, trying to determine when may be the appropriate time to return to work. All the major latenight talkers have been dark since the WGA strike began Nov. 5.

Because none of the shows wants to be the first to return to production, the behind-the-scenes conversations seem to be aimed at reaching an informal agreement that would result in at least two shows from separate networks returning on the same date.

Although Letterman, Leno and O’Brien want to be respectful of their writers, they’re also deeply concerned about the impact of a prolonged strike on their non-WGA staffs.

NBC, for example, told producers on its latenight shows that it would continue paying staff members only through Nov. 16 (Daily Variety, Nov. 7).

Producers of the Peacock shows lobbied the net to keep the paychecks coming, however, and late Thursday, the network agreed. Staffers on Leno’s and O’Brien’s shows, along with those on “Last Call With Carson Daly,” will be paid for at least two more weeks, a network spokeswoman said.

Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants production shingle is solely responsible for staffer salaries on “Late Show” and “Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” has told staffers they’re not going to be cut off. Company will “continue to pay the nonwriting staff of the shows — fully compensating lower-salaried employees and providing a substantial portion of salaries for those at the higher end — at least through the end of the year,” a Worldwide Pants spokesman said.

As for whether “Late Show” will return before the strike is settled, the spokesman was noncommittal.

“Next week’s tapings of ‘The Late Show’ and ‘The Late, Late Show’ have been canceled, and we will continue to make a week-by-week determination about future tapings,” he said. “Of course, we all want to get back to work as soon as possible, and it remains our hope that both sides in this dispute will make progress toward that end. In the meantime, we will continue monitoring this situation closely as we make decisions regarding our future production schedule.”

As for “The Tonight Show,” exec producer Debbie Vickers last week issued a statement saying that she was mulling options to keep her staffers working, including bringing in guest hosts to fill in for Leno.

“Late Night” exec producer Jeff Ross also declined to comment, except to say that he had been focusing his efforts on getting NBC to keep paying his non-WGA staff for as long as possible.

Producers for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” also have participated in the behind-the-scenes talks with other latenight producers. Comedy Central is still paying the support staffs for those shows.

However, it may be more difficult for those skeins to return without writers — particularly “Colbert Report,” which is mostly scripted.

One big factor in any decision to go back to work: the WGA’s reaction. Latenight producers were taken aback by the WGA East’s condemnation of Ellen DeGeneres after she opted to return to work. A guild spokesman said there have been no talks with the latenight shows about granting waivers.

“Latenight hosts who are WGA members are prohibited by our strike rules from performing writing services,” the rep said. “As many of the hosts have themselves commented, it is extremely difficult to produce first-rate shows without writers.”

The latenight camp is hoping the Carson precedent — he returned to work about two months into the strike — will mute any negative response if and when their shows return.

In addition, latenight producers note that only about 20% of their programs are scripted. The rest is filled with interviews and musical performances.

That the hosts immediately took their shows dark, and are likely to stay dark for about a month, also could be enough of a goodwill gesture to ensure a relatively controversy-free return to the air.

In an interview with Time.com, a striking “Late Show” scribe said he and his peers “would have no problem” if Letterman returned sans scribes.

“David Letterman on the air without writers, pissed off and talking about the strike, would be the greatest ally the writers could have,” he told the magazine.

Feature-film tubthumpers are certainly hoping the hosts find a way to get back on the air. Latenighters are typically a powerful tool in any studio’s marketing campaign, and the loss of original segs during the holiday movie season has been tough.

So far, ratings for the latenight shows haven’t been dramatically hurt by the strike — but there are signs of erosion.

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