As the WGA strike draws to a close, first stop on the road to normalcy will be late night — where producers are already plotting a return to air within the next two to three weeks. “We want to come back ASAP,” said one late night insider. Added another: “I think everybody’s leaning forward, like they’re ready to go…. I would look for them to return on October 2 or October 9. I think that they are going to be very motivated to get their crews working again.”
According to insiders, some late night producers are already emailing staff members about coming back to work ASAP — perhaps as soon as Tuesday, depending on what happens next at the WGA.
Because talk shows fall under SAG-AFTRA’s network code deal, which isn’t a part of the talent guild’s current strike, that should allow the hosts (who are all on strike as members of the Writers Guild) to come back immediately, or at least after the WGA membership approves the new deal. Most insiders predict that the major network daily shows will coordinate an exact time to return at the same time — continuing the cooperation between competitors that has even led to the “Strike Force Five” podcast, featuring Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. The hosts have been in close contact during the strike, and will likely want to maintain that spirit of cooperation.
The next step is to get back in touch with crew members (some of whom may have left the shows’ New York or Los Angeles home bases during the strike) in addition to their writing teams, who have likely been on the picket line and will quickly be available to return to work — once they have the all-clear from the WGA.
“I think that the calculation for all these shows is how quickly you can get your crew back to work,” said one insider. “There’s probably some conversations to be had with labor relations. We’re so close to the finish line that no one wants to step on a guild landmine. But from a production standpoint, I think you could turn it around pretty quickly.”
Although the late night shows — among them “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers” — have been off the air since the end of April, many of those weeknight strips have continued to operate with a skeleton staff. That includes non-writing executive producers, digital teams, production managers and bookers.
“We’ve been keeping the wheels somewhat in motion,” one talk show staffer said. “So, it’s just sort of dusting off the studio, and getting it back up again… it’s not exactly a light switch, but as long as you can get everybody back in, the network just has to pull repeats and start putting new broadcast shows back on. It’s just about what goes into those shows. And that’s the part that you need a little lead time for, is to figure exactly what you’re coming back and doing.”
Some shows have been continuing to book their episodes, with the knowledge that eventually they’ll actually be back in production. Shows that kept their talent boards going have been plotting various versions of guest lists: Some with SAG-AFTRA guests (for when that strike ends), some with non-SAG-AFTRA guests, and in some cases, guest lists of SAG-AFTRA members who are allowed to promote a project that is either not SAG related, or has received a waiver from the guild. Then there are musicians, sports figures, politicians, reality stars, authors, celebrity chefs and other ways to fill the time.
“If you look at all of the shows that have been continuing to run, like ‘CBS Mornings’ or ‘Live with Kelly and Mark’ or the ‘Today’ show, the bookings are good,” one insider noted. “Oprah and Matthew McConaughey and the like are promoting things that have nothing to do with a SAG project.”
The shows will likely need a few weeks to gin back up the marketing machine — to let audiences know that the talk shows are returning with originals. And producers will want a few weeks to bank material for the shows.
“I don’t think anyone’s interested in rushing to put a crappy first show together,” said one staffer.
At the same time, the start-and-stop nature of producing talk shows during the COVID-19 pandemic has already given the shows a template on how to quickly turn the engine back on.
“Most of those shows are pretty well-oiled machines. And it’s a lot of people that have been working together for a long time. Short of paperwork, I think they can get the operation going quite quickly,” said one exec with a late night background. “Those pivots happened multiple times through the pandemic, where you’re up, you’re down, you’re at home, you’re back in the studio. And so, everyone’s sharpened those skills quite a bit at rapid adjustment over the past few years. I think that they’re probably better suited to it.”
That’s on the broadcast side. In cable, “The Daily Show” had been running for months on guest hosts after the departure of Trevor Noah, and it will likely take longer to ramp back up with a new slate of hosts. At HBO, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” relies almost entirely on research and writing, and will probably take longer to prepare.
On the other hand, “Real Time with Bill Maher” was almost set to return this weekend, until Maher decided to put the show on hold as the WGA and AMPTP resumed negotiations. That probably means “Real Time” could be back this coming Friday, having just pushed back a week.
The daytime talk shows are in a similar situation: Because most of them had planned on returning last week — until a backlash led them to postpone their season premieres — it should be relatively easy for “The Drew Barrymore Show,” “The Jennifer Hudson Show” and “The Talk” to get on the air quickly. (“The Kelly Clarkson Show” is still building its new set in New York and hasn’t yet announced a premiere date.)
“Their productions would all be in shape,” an insider said. “They brought back their crew for those shows. They’d have everybody local and ready, and could probably get going pretty quickly when they decide they can.”