On a day when NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien dealt a blow to striking film and television writers by announcing that they would cross the picket line to go back on the air -- and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel prepared to do the same -- the Writers Guild of America flexed its own muscles by denying waivers to the producers of the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
The decision means that Dick Clark Productions and the Foreign Press Assn. will not be able to employ writers to craft the script for the Globes, which airs Jan. 13 on NBC, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not be allowed to show clips of movies and past award shows in the February telecast of the Oscars without paying residuals for their use.
People close to the guild's board said the union also decided it would not permit writers to work on the Oscars, although the academy has not asked for such a waiver.
The WGA's stance essentially makes the high-gloss awards shows "struck productions." As such they probably would be boycotted by Hollywood's A-list writers and the actors sympathetic to their cause. The WGA said Monday that it was too early to discuss picketing plans. The move underscores the tensions between the guild and the major studios, which typically enjoy major promotional pushes from the telecasts.
In letters sent Monday night to the producers, Patric M. Verrone, president of WGA West, said the union decided that granting their requests would not help the guild's position in the 6-week-old strike.
"We must do everything we can to bring our negotiations to a swift and fair conclusion for the benefit of writers and all those who are being harmed by the companies' failure to engage in serious negotiations," Verrone wrote. "Our board concluded, reluctantly, that granting a waiver . . . would not advance that goal."
Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy, said he was taken aback by the WGA's refusal to grant the organization a waiver to use the film clips. The academy was planning to wait to make its request for a writing waiver for host Jon Stewart and his writing staff after "the dust settles," an effort that now appears futile.
"This is striking more at the heart of what we do," Davis said.
In a statement, Dick Clark Productions expressed its disappointment that its request was denied but said it hoped to work out a separate deal with the WGA so it could employ writers for the Globes.
The union's decision about the awards programs came on the heels of NBC's announcement that Leno and O'Brien would go back on the air Jan. 2. ABC plans to announce today that host Kimmel will return to the air the same night, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
The NBC comedians, who are both WGA members, said they supported their writing staff but must return to work to save the jobs of hundreds of others who work on the shows. Since NBC laid off the production crews at the end of November, Leno and O'Brien have been paying the salaries of their staff members themselves, a significant expenditure they appeared unwilling to shoulder indefinitely.
"Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it's my responsibility to get my 100 non-writing staff, which were laid off, back to work," Leno said in a statement. "We fully support our writers, and I think they understand my decision."
O'Brien, who described himself as an "ardent supporter" of the guild, said in a separate statement that he had to decide whether to "go back to work and keep my staff employed or stay dark and allow 80 people, many of whom have worked for me for 14 years, to lose their jobs."
The decision by the NBC hosts to return to the air after their shows languished in reruns for six weeks marks a sobering turn for the union, which last month trumpeted Leno's appearance on the picket line as evidence of the high-profile support for the writers' cause.
NBC's Carson Daly, who is not a WGA member, had been the only late-night host to resume production in late November, a move that drew derision from many writers. The guild also lambasted Ellen DeGeneres last month when she resumed taping her syndicated daytime talk show.
The union's response to the decision by Leno and O'Brien seemed muted by comparison.
"NBC forcing Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien back on the air without writers is not going to provide the quality entertainment that the public deserves," the guild said in a statement.
Similarly, the shows' own writers took pains not to criticize Leno or O'Brien, whose personal payments to their staffs earned them substantial goodwill.
"We knew it was just a matter of time before late night would come back," said Joe Medeiros, head writer for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," as he picketed outside NBC's Burbank headquarters. "But Jay has been very supportive to us, and we support him."
The news about Leno and O'Brien came two days after David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, said it was seeking an interim deal with the guild that would allow its programs -- "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" -- to return to the air with their writing staffs. Such an agreement, which the guild said it was open to making, could put both CBS shows at a significant advantage over their competition, especially if prominent guests refuse to cross the WGA picket line to appear on the NBC programs.
Unlike Letterman, Leno and O'Brien do not own their shows and cannot make similar arrangements. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are also unable to make separate deals with the WGA because their programs are owned by their networks. On Monday, a Comedy Central spokesman said it was unclear when they would return to the air.
The sharp ratings declines suffered by most of the late-night programs contributed to a sense of urgency among the programs' producers in recent weeks. As the strike has dragged on, reruns of the shows have performed poorly, with NBC weathering the steepest drops. Both "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show" -- the latter earns $50 million in profit a year for NBC -- were down 38% during the first five weeks of the strike compared with the same period last year.
Debbie Vickers, executive producer of "The Tonight Show," said the slumping viewership wasn't the main factor behind the hosts' decision to return.
"I don't think it was the driving force," she said. "These guys want to do shows."
Jeff Ross, executive producer of "Late Night," said, "We put it off as long as we could."
NBC will begin paying the salaries of some producers and bookers this week as the shows ramp up, with Leno and O'Brien covering the rest of the payroll until the end of the year.
In announcing their return, the network compared Leno and O'Brien to Johnny Carson, who returned to the air without his writers during the 1988 writers strike. However, unlike his NBC successors, Carson was not a guild member and was able to perform his own material.
As members of the union, Leno and O'Brien face a trickier challenge. Under WGA strike rules, they are prohibited from writing material that otherwise would have been penned by guild writers -- including themselves.
"If they are employed as writers on the show, the rule as we see it is that they are barred from performing writing services," said Tony Segall, general counsel of WGA West.
That stance could rankle NBC executives, who said they hoped Leno and O'Brien would be able to write their own jokes.
O'Brien pledged to talk up the writers' cause on the air, adding that without his staff, "my show will not be as good. In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible."
The two programs will probably try to add more guest interviews to fill time, a prospect that presents its own hurdles because many actors have sided publicly with the WGA and could be reluctant to cross the picket line to appear on the program.
But some Hollywood veterans said they believed that many actors would have no problem appearing on the shows.
"You're going to find very few stars who are not going to go on," publicist Howard Bragman said.
Producers of both shows said they had heard similar sentiments recently from representatives of prospective guests.
"It does seem like people are warming to the idea," Vickers of "The Tonight Show" said. "January feels better than December did."
"I think there is some strike fatigue," she added. "You want to give everyone the opportunity to have resolution. But if there aren't resolutions, we can't just wait and wait and wait."
However, getting prominent actors to walk the red carpet at the Globes and the Oscars could be more difficult, if the past is any indication. In 1980, the Emmy Awards were held during a Screen Actors Guild strike. In a show of support for their union, 51 of the 52 nominated performers boycotted the event.
"I don't think there's anybody involved who's nominated who won't have this on his mind in a major way even if turns out there is no picket line," David Cronenberg, director of "Eastern Promises," said last week after being nominated for a Golden Globe. "It'd be hard to celebrate full blast given the way people are hurting. It makes it a difficult situation."
Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz, John Horn, Chris Lee and Meg James contributed to this report.