The New York Times reports:
Jay Leno made a triumphant return to late-night television Wednesday night, easily dominating the ratings competition over his chief rival, David Letterman, and delivering a traditional full-length monologue — even though he was performing without his team of 19 writers.
Members of the Writers Guild picketed the NBC studio in Burbank, Calif.
But how Mr. Leno was able to accomplish that feat has become the subject of an increasingly fractious dispute between the NBC star and the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike against the movie studios and television networks for the past two months.
The Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East moved Thursday to prevent Mr. Leno from performing any more monologues, while NBC executives said Mr. Leno would ignore the strike rules set up by the writers and would tell his scripted jokes as planned on Thursday’s broadcast of “The Tonight Show.”
The dispute could affect the other late-night shows that are without writers because of the strike. Both “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on NBC and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC returned to the air this week, and their hosts did not perform scripted monologues.
Two shows on Comedy Central, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert, are scheduled to return Monday. If Mr. Leno is able to continue to perform material he writes for himself, it might open the door for the other hosts to do the same.
The clash over Mr. Leno’s monologue comes at a critical time in the two-month strike for the networks and the guilds. Ratings for the highly lucrative late-night talk shows rose sharply on Wednesday, bringing smiles to the faces of network and advertising executives.
The shows had experienced steep declines in viewership when the guild began to strike in early November, halting production on the shows of Mr. Leno, Mr. Letterman, Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Kimmel and Craig Ferguson.
“Everybody’s happy that the late-night shows are back,” said Steve Lanzano, the chief operating officer of MPG, a division of Havas, the global communications agency. “It’s going to mean more ratings points in the marketplace, which has taken a real hit in the past year.”
Late-night talk shows are also an important beachhead for the striking writers, who see the hosts, particularly Mr. Letterman, as sympathetic to their cause.
In a telephone interview Thursday night, Patric M. Verrone, the president of the Writers Guild of America West, said that with strike talks at a standstill, there had been some hope that the deal that allowed Mr. Letterman to return with writers would help move the situation toward a settlement. But, he said, “instead the companies are choosing to pit these guys against us.”
The conflict seems about to play out on late-night’s biggest show, “The Tonight Show.” Mr. Leno said on the air Wednesday that he was following the rules set down by the writers before the strike and was writing his own jokes for the monologue. In their outline of what could be permitted during the strike, the writers expressly excluded guild members from writing any material for use by any of the companies affected by the strike, even material written for their own use.
NBC executives said Thursday that Mr. Leno and his writers held a meeting on Monday with Mr. Verrone and that Mr. Leno had told Mr. Verrone he was going to write his monologue material himself. According to the NBC executives, Mr. Verrone gave Mr. Leno his approval.
But Thursday the guild challenged that interpretation of what had happened in the meeting. Mr. Verrone said, “The sense of it was, Jay was going to play by the book.” He said that Mr. Leno had brought up his work as a guest host in a strike in 1988, and “I can understand that there may have been some confusion for Jay about that.”
He said that he had a telephone conversation with Mr. Leno on Thursday, and “I made it absolutely clear that he cannot write for the show.”
One of Mr. Leno’s writers who attended the meeting with Mr. Verrone supported Mr. Leno’s version that he had been given some assurance that he could write his monologue.
“Jay said, ‘Let me get this clear: I’m allowed to write my monologue,’” said the writer, who asked not to be identified because he was a strike supporter and did not want publicly to challenge the guild’s version of events. “Verrone said, ‘Well, since you are taking one for the team, we won’t hassle you about that.’”
The writer added, “There was no way Jay could have misinterpreted what was being said.”
Neal Sacharow, a spokesman for the Writers Guild of America West, said that after Mr. Verrone clarified the strike rules, it would be “a clear violation” if Mr. Leno wrote and performed a monologue on Thursday night’s show.
Asked what the guild would do if Mr. Leno performed a monologue anyway, Mr. Verrone said any violation of strike rules would be brought before a Strike Rules Compliance Committee.
NBC executives said Thursday evening that Mr. Leno, who was scheduled to tape his show at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, would continue to write and perform his monologue based on the contract between the guild and all production companies that was in effect when the strike began. That contract cannot be superseded by the strike rules imposed by the guild, said Andrea Hartman, executive vice president and deputy legal counsel of NBC.
“The strike rules cannot contradict the scope and express terms of the overall agreement,” Ms. Hartman said.
According to an appendix in the contract, which NBC said remained in effect during the strike, the definition of “literary material” specifically excludes “material written by the person who delivers it on the air.”
Mr. Verrone said the guild interpreted that rule differently, saying that it covered only performers who were not also hired as writers for a production and that Mr. Leno was listed as a writer on his own show.
Media buyers and network representatives said movie studios and other advertising clients were enthusiastic about the return of original programming. Among the studios, Walt Disney Pictures, Warner Brothers, Lionsgate Entertainment Corporation and the Weinstein Company advertised Wednesday during “The Late Show.”
The late-night shows enjoyed significant viewership increases on Wednesday, presumably because viewers were curious about how Mr. Leno would perform and what Mr. Letterman would say about the strike.
“The Tonight Show” averaged 7.2 million viewers, almost three million more than its season-to-date average, and “The Late Show” averaged 5.5 million viewers, nearly two million more than its average.
The strong ratings for the hosts’ returns belie the sagging advertising market for late-night television. Before the strike began the late-night shows had shed approximately 10 percent of their viewers. Two months of forced repeats — at one point NBC showed an episode of “The Tonight Show” from 1992 — exacerbated the declines.
The income from late-night TV is significant. A 30-second commercial on Mr. Leno’s show costs roughly $50,000, according to media buyers. Both “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show” were expected to earn more than $200 million in ad revenue in 2007, according to estimates by TNS Media Intelligence.
Mr. Leno has led Mr. Letterman since 1995. Some observers expect Mr. Letterman’s access to writers and ability to book prominent entertainers to increase his viewership. Media buyers said the greater test for both hosts would come later this month.
“In the coming weeks, if Leno is unable to secure guests, I think there could be a narrowing of the gap between the two shows,” said Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president of the media agency Carat USA.
Other late-night shows also showed ratings gains on Wednesday. “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” averaged 2.8 million viewers, up 55 percent from the season averages. “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” averaged 2.2 million viewers, up 31 percent. The ABC show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” with 1.8 million viewers, was down slightly from its season average.