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Strike do’s and don’ts for talk-show hosts

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Is Ellen DeGeneres breaking strike rules?

That’s the assertion of the WGA East, which has volleyed a barrage of criticism at the comedian for returning to her show while her writers are on the picket lines. DeGeneres -- a member of the WGA as well as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists -- sat one day out last week until she was told by her production company that she had to go back to work or risk breaching her contract.

Since then, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has continued production, much to the indignation of the guild, which has accused her of undermining her staff. For her part, the comedian has repeatedly voiced support for her writers and described feeling “caught in the middle.” She refrained from doing a monologue on her first day back in honor of her writers.

Since then, however, DeGeneres has reinstated the show’s opening segment, triggering a charge from the WGA East that she is performing “struck work,” a violation of guild rules.

Representatives for Degeneres vigorously dispute that allegation, saying that she is ad-libbing her monologues, not writing them (as we previously reported this week).

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“Ellen continues to comply with the strike rules and the terms of the WGA MBA, while at the same time honor her contractual obligation as a host through AFTRA and honor her contractual obligations to deliver original episodes to 220 stations,” they said in a statement. “In addition, the show is keeping 135 staff and crew members employed as we enter the holiday season.”

So is she riffing or writing? DeGeneres is a stand-up comic and ostensibly could come up with jokes on the fly. In a sampling of her recent monologues posted on her show’s website, she delivers bits about daily conundrums in her usual droll style. In a segment on Thursday’s show, she described how she gets nervous every time a police car pulls up behind her, “even though I’m doing nothing wrong except possibly listening to Milli Vanilli.”

As long as DeGeneres didn’t write that ahead of time, it appears she’s in the clear.

“Our view is she could not perform writing services,” said Tony Segall, general counsel for WGA West, of which the comedian is a member. Performing her duties as a host, however, “doesn’t violate anything,” he said. (The guild, of course, wishes she wouldn’t do that, either.)

“The only thing that is struck work is writing, and that means putting something down in fixed form on paper or on a computer,” Segall added. “Our contract doesn’t cover ad-libbing.”

Now wait a minute, you may be thinking. Didn’t Johnny Carson come back on “The Tonight Show” during the 1988 strike and write his own monologues? How was that kosher?

Ah, here’s the key: Carson, surprisingly, was not a member of the WGA. As a member of AFTRA, he was allowed to write and perform his own material.

But that wouldn’t be the case this year, since AFTRA has taken a strong stance in support of the WGA labor stoppage.

“Our members have been instructed not to do the work that has usually been done by members of the writers guild,” said AFTRA spokesman John Heinrichs.

That point is somewhat moot when it comes to the current batch of late-night hosts. Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are all WGA members, according to the writers guild. So if any of them decided to go back on the air before the strike is resolved -- a possibility that has been reportedly floated in behind-the-scenes talks -- they would not be able to write any material. (They could, however, skip, dance, sing or -- like DeGeneres -- ad lib their monologues.)

Interestingly, one person who could be affected by AFTRA’s stance is CBS anchor Katie Couric, a member of that guild. CBS news writers who have a separate WGA contract are in the midst of voting on whether to authorize their own strike. Among the 500 CBS employees: three news writers who help pen Couric’s daily evening broadcast.

Results of the vote are expected Monday. While the CBS News employees are likely to authorize a strike, that doesn’t mean a work action will actually occur.

If it does, however, Couric would be constrained from writing for the broadcast, other than the editing of her own copy that she already does. That task would have to be taken up by the program’s executive producer, Rick Kaplan, and his senior staff.

More news on the strike

-- Matea Gold

Photo credit: The Associated Press


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