Hosts may be back on air by Jan. 7th

With latenight ratings continuing to plunge, the betting in network circles is that several hosts will be back on the air by Jan. 7, if not sooner.

Nothing’s been officially decided, and nobody will comment. But with the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers so broken up, people familiar with the situation said several hosts are nearing the conclusion that it’s time to return.

Latenight hosts have stayed off the job since the strike began out of deference to their scribes. And while talks were ongoing, they didn’t want to take away any leverage from WGA negotiators by returning. They even went so far as to begin paying their nonscribe staffs out of their own pockets.

So who will come back first? There’s some talk that the Big Four hosts — David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson — may all return around the same time. While informal discussions between the NBC and CBS camps have continued via backchannels throughout the strike (Daily Variety, Nov. 16), absolutely nothing like that has been agreed upon.

Latenight insiders, however, believe Leno and O’Brien are most likely to return in early January, no matter what Letterman decides. NBC has to be concerned about the plunging ratings for both shows, which in recent weeks have lost nearly half their audience.

ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has actually done OK in repeats, a reflection of the show’s audience growth in the past year and a sign regular Leno and Letterman viewers may be checking out the “new” guy. Getting a read on his intentions has been more difficult, though some latenight observers believe he may also be preparing to go back soon.

Biggest fear in latenight circles is that the WGA will denounce hosts who come back. Carson Daly, who’s not even a WGA member, took a tongue-lashing from the guild and has had to endure at least one disruption of his show by disgruntled scribes (Daily Variety, Dec. 13).

Those worries — and a desire not to be the first host back — explain why nobody has returned to the air this week, even though talks have broken down. Some latenight insiders fear the hosts may yet still decide to stay off the air.

Writers for both Letterman and O’Brien have been quoted as saying they’d understand if their hosts returned to work, particularly since they stayed off the air for nearly two months.

Meanwhile, the latenight laugh blackout continues to help ABC’s “Nightline.” For the second consecutive week, the ABC News broadcast beat both Leno’s and Letterman’s shows — the first time that’s happened since 1995.

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