Live late-night TV returns just in time for the presidential primary season. But the real political story to watch tonight as David Letterman and Jay Leno swing back into action is how the shows without writing staffs fare - and what effect that has on the two-month-old Hollywood writers' strike.
Only two shows, Late Night with David Letterman and the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, will have writers onboard for their return. That's because the two programs that air on CBS are owned by Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, which reached an interim agreement Friday with the Writers Guild of America. The other programs returning tonight - those of Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel - are owned by the networks that air them (NBC Universal and Disney-ABC). Not only won't these shows have writers, their producers will have a much harder time booking A-list guests, particularly those members of the Screen Actors Guild who are unwilling to cross the writers' picket lines.
"There are all kinds of political story lines for people to watch as these shows return," says Douglas Gomery, media economist and historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Which of your favorite stars - or political candidates - will or will not cross a picket line? And what does Jay Leno look like when he's intellectually naked - working without that huge staff of writers? How funny or politically savvy will he be then? It is all part of a dance that will play a big role in defining the ultimate terms of settlement in this strike."
Letterman will have a legitimate A-list Hollywood headliner tonight in Robin Williams. That is the kind of star power that could make Letterman the new late-night ratings leader - instead of the traditional runner-up to Leno.
NBC, meanwhile, has announced that Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee will be featured on Leno's show tonight, the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Crossing a picket line in such a public manner could be seen as a way for the governor of Arkansas to assert his conservative credentials with millions of potential voters.
One can't help but wonder what Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, TV's two most politically astute late-night hosts, would make of Huckabee and Leno together tonight. But viewers will have to wait until Monday for their return - without writers. Nor will they have as guests any of the leading Democrats - Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who have all said they will not participate in any show that involves crossing a picket line.
"Politics and more politics," says Gomery, scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting. "And the consequences are going to be significant. You can bet the major studios will be watching closely - not just the performers, but what kinds of ratings the shows with writers get versus the ratings for those without. And viewers will play a major role in determining that."