Over the last couple of weeks, Drew Barrymore has faced considerable backlash for bringing back her daytime talk show before the conclusion of either the WGA or the SAG-AFTRA strike. Interestingly, shows like The View and Live with Kelly Ripa and Her Husband have not received similar criticism, even though they are all continuing amid the strike. In truth, Barrymore is not a SAG-AFTRA scab. According to SAG-AFTRA rules, her show is allowed to come back because the struck SAG contracts do not cover daytime television shows or game shows. However, she is crossing the WGA picket line because she’s returning without her writers.
Barrymore will argue that she is protecting the livelihoods of the scores of staff on her show, albeit at the unfortunate expense of three WGA writers. Some may sympathize with her, but it’s essential to note that she is still crossing the picket line, and her actions may have provided cover for Bill Maher, who is also resuming his talk show without writers.
Inevitably, when conversations about the return of talk-show hosts (or Jeopardy hosts) arise, people often refer to the late-night talk shows who returned during the 2007-08 strike. This strike began in early November 2007 and lasted until mid-February 2008. However, David Letterman brought his late-night talk show back during the first week of 2008, a week earlier than the rest. The details surrounding their returns are somewhat muddled by history, but here’s the reality: Except for David Letterman (and Craig Ferguson), the others were scabs. This group includes Jay Leno (obviously), Conan, Kimmel, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.
The reason Letterman could return without being considered a scab is that he owned his independent production studio, Worldwide Pants (which also owned Craig Ferguson’s show). Letterman negotiated an interim deal with the WGA, promising residuals for work that appeared on the Internet (a significant point of contention in the ‘07-‘08 strike). Letterman and Ferguson, therefore, returned with their writers.
At that time, late-night television was still a substantial revenue driver for the networks. The other late-night talk show hosts, particularly Jay Leno, naturally didn’t want David Letterman to gain an advantage over their shows, which were airing reruns. Most of them returned the following week, but they all returned without writers. They were all scabbing, although some were more egregious about it than others. For instance, while some hosts like Jimmy Kimmel returned without monologues, Leno brazenly returned with monologues while insisting that he wrote them himself. He was basically poking his writers in the eye.
To be fair, NBC and Comedy Central also forced the hands of their hosts (Leno, Conan, Stewart, and Colbert) by threatening to fire their staff if they did not return. It is also true that the late-night hosts paid their staff out of their own pockets during the strike, with one pseudo exception. Leno guaranteed his staff would be paid right up until NBC laid off 80 of his staff members, some of whom were not guaranteed to get their jobs back after the strike. Leno received substantial criticism for this, primarily because he had made assurances to his staff. Nonetheless, those layoffs, along with the threat of more, did prompt the late-night hosts to scab. To the credit of both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they at least changed the name of their shows to A Daily Show and The Colbert Report (with hard Ts) during the strike. While most of the shows saw their ratings either remain steady (Letterman) or decline (Leno, Conan) upon their return, the ratings for Comedy Central actually shot up (it helped that it was an election year).
Ah, but wait! Many old-timers may remember that some of David Letterman’s most memorable shows were during the strike without writers when he truly winged it with segments like “Hal Gurnee’s Time Killers.” This occurred during the 1988 writers’ strike, and Letterman (as well as Carson) had received explicit permission from the WGA to return without writers, unlike the late-night talk show hosts during the 2007-08 strike. It probably helped that Letterman spent much of his program calling the AMPTP “money-grubbing scum.” Letterman was basically running the PR campaign against the AMPTP. Drew Barrymore, if she must return, should take note.