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Ellen Gray | Leno, O'Brien returning to air; Side deal for Letterman?

LOOK WHO'S talking. With the writers strike entering its seventh week, NBC announced yesterday that "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno and "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien would return to the air with new shows - but most likely without writers - on Jan. 2.

LOOK WHO'S talking.

With the writers strike entering its seventh week, NBC announced yesterday that "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno and "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien would return to the air with new shows - but most likely without writers - on Jan. 2.

Meanwhile, CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman," which is owned not by CBS but by Letterman's Worldwide Pants, was reportedly talking with the Writers Guild of America about a deal that might put Letterman's writers - whose blog, LateShowWriters, has been one of the strike's few bright spots - back to work.

"I have no news on our end . . . We're sort of on a different track than NBC," Worldwide Pants spokesman Tom Keaney said yesterday.

If the WGA and Worldwide Pants, which also produces CBS' "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," don't reach an agreement, might Letterman come back without his writers?

"I can't address that, except to say that we're extremely hopeful" that a deal can be made, Keaney said.

NBC, which, unlike CBS, owns its late-night shows, seemed eager to get the word out that Jay and Conan would once again be making the world safe for actors with movies to plug.

Not that anyone's sure how many members of the Screen Actors Guild will be willing to cross picket lines to sit down with the strike-defying duo, whose absence from an NBC conference call with reporters yesterday was a mite conspicuous.

"We've been contacting [prospective] guests, taking the temperature," said "Late Night" executive producer Jeff Ross.

"January feels warmer than December did" in terms of guests agreeing to come on, said "Tonight Show" executive producer Debbie Vickers, extending the weather metaphor.

(Conan's writers, who've presumably been picketing in wintry New York, not sunny Burbank, might not agree.)

Though neither of the guys who will ultimately take the heat for the decision to go back was on the call yesterday, NBC released statements in each of their names, Leno's saying that "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. We fully support our writers and I think they understand my decision."

What's missing from that statement? Well, for one thing, acknowledgment that the talks broke down when the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers - which is negotiating for, among other entities, NBC Universal - left the table.

Who laid off the non-writing staff? NBC.

So who wins when Leno goes back?

Not the writers, that's for sure.

O'Brien, a former writer for "The Simpsons" whose statement noted his long ties to the WGA, vowed that he would "make clear, on the program, my support for the writers and I'll do the best version of 'Late Night' I can under the circumstances. Of course, my show will not be as good. In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible."

"The whole point of this was to get the non-writing staff members to get paid," said Rick Ludwin, NBC's executive vice president for late night and prime-time series.

Though Leno and O'Brien have reportedly been paying their non-writing staffs (as have Letterman and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel), Ludwin seemed unsure how or even whether those people would continue to be paid before their shows returned.

So what does all this mean for the rest of us, other than that it's possible that the movies being promoted after the 11 p.m. news might currently be in theaters rather than already out on DVD?

Late-night fans were the first to feel the effects of the writers strike, which immediately shut down everything from CBS' "Late Show" to Comedy Central's "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report."

Now, as a 2008 packed with "reality" and reruns looms, they might be getting some relief just as prime-time viewers, particularly drama junkies whose supplies are running low, begin to feel some pain.

Plus, there's no doubt some entertainment to be found in seeing how guys used to having a dozen writers on staff handle themselves without backup.

"I don't think they [Leno and O'Brien] have the jobs they have if they're not good at improvising," said Vickers. "When Jay is challenged, he rises to the occasion . . . Hopefully, we're going to get through this and have some fun moments."

But those fun moments could translate into improved revenue for NBC, helping to steel corporate resolve to hold out against the writers' demands for what they consider a fair share of Internet revenue.

Even Letterman, if he returns with WGA approval, risks hurting the writers he's trying to help, since CBS, too, would reap the benefits of a "Late Show" no longer in reruns.

So viewers who really care about the quality of their television might consider heading off to bed early for a while longer. *

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