O’Brien helps staff during strike

'Late Night' host pays salaries of 80 people

WGA strike-related angst continues apace in the latenight realm. Conan O’Brien is digging deep to help his staff weather the shutdown, while Carson Daly is dodging the slings and arrows of WGA supporters for his decision to resume production this week.

O’Brien, host of NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” will cover the salaries of his nonwriting production staff — nearly 80 people — for the foreseeable future, an NBC Universal spokeswoman confirmed. O’Brien will foot the payroll bill starting next week, barring a resolution in the WGA work stoppage, which wrapped its 25th day on Thursday.

Daly this week made the decision to resume production on his NBC yakker “Last Call,” taping new episodes this week for the first time since the strike began on Nov. 5. First of Daly’s fresh segs is skedded to air Monday.

Daly taped a segment with a musical guest Wednesday night, and was set to do the same on Thursday. Notified of the taping on a stage on NBC’s Burbank lot, the WGA sent out a call for pickets to assemble around 6 p.m. outside NBC’s California gate off West Alameda Avenue.

A WGA spokesman said striking writers and guild supporters will be there to “protest Daly’s disappointing decision to cross the picket line.”

In a statement, Daly said he decided to return to work to save the jobs of 75 staff and crew members on “Last Call,” which follows “Late Night” at 1:36 a.m. on weeknights.

“As a non-WGA member I feel I have supported my four guild writers and their strike by suspending production for a month,” Daly said. “While I continue to support their cause, I can’t, in all good conscience, stand by and let that happen to the vast majority of my loyal staff and crew.”

After the onset of the strike shuttered its latenight lineup, NBC agreed to cover the staff salaries for its nightly skeins – “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Late Night” and “Last Call” — through the end of this month. In contrast, the majority of production staff on “Saturday Night Live” received pink slips after the strike ended its second week.

Like David Letterman at CBS, O’Brien made the decision to step up in a big way to take care of those who help him put on the show every night. But unlike Letterman, who owns his “Late Show,” Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” and the Worldwide Pants production banner that employs those staffers, O’Brien is tapping his own bank account to save NBC U employees on a Peacock-owned show from getting the ax, even temporarily. O’Brien’s gesture to his staff comes as his own eight-figure salary has been suspended since the strike forced his show to halt production.

O’Brien is understood to be motivated by the deep sense of loyalty that many of his staffers have shown him over the years — and probably will continue to after he relocates from Gotham to the West Coast in 2009 to take over “The Tonight Show.”

In the absence of a breakthrough in the WGA contract talks, current nonwriter staffers on “The Tonight Show” will be furloughed starting next week. ABC continues to pay the staff of its lone entertainment-oriented latenighter “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Another part of O’Brien’s reasoning for shelling out for his staff is that the latenight production shutdown for “Late Night” and other shows is by definition temporary — either the strike will be resolved or at some point in the not-so-distant future the network skeins will resume production. O’Brien wanted to spare his staff the financial pain, particularly during the holiday season, insiders said.

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