Late Night Shows Go Dark in First Fallout From Writers’ Strike

Just hours after the union representing thousands of television and movie writers announced that they were going on strike, hundreds of their members occupied an entire city block in Midtown Manhattan on Tuesday.

Gathered outside an NBCUniversal event on Fifth Avenue, the writers chanted “No contract, no content” and held up signs with slogans like “Pencils Down!!!” and “Spoiler Alert: We Will Win.”

“These companies are absolutely destroying our industry,” Tony Kushner, the acclaimed playwright and a screenwriter of movies like “Lincoln” and “The Fabelmans,” said from the picket line, referring to Hollywood studios.

It was a noisy show of solidarity, echoed on picket lines outside the major studios in Los Angeles. But the immediate fallout of the strike — which shattered 15 years of labor peace in the entertainment industry and will bring much of Hollywood’s production assembly line to a halt — was felt most acutely in the world of late-night television, which immediately went dark.

On Tuesday afternoon, NBC issued a statement that the upcoming edition of the “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” would be a repeat from April. “Late Night With Seth Meyers” canceled a show that was supposed to feature an interview with the actress Rachel Weisz, replacing it with a rerun from February.

New episodes from late-night shows hosted by Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel have also been suspended. “Saturday Night Live” canceled a new episode scheduled for this weekend with Pete Davidson as host. NBC said it would “air repeats until further notice,” raising the possibility that the show will not be able to end its 48th season with a finale.

How long late-night talk shows stay off the air is an open question. During the last strike, in 2007, late-night shows gradually came back after about two months, even with their writers still on picket lines. (That strike lasted 100 days.)

Mr. Kimmel, ABC’s late-night host, was paying his staff out of pocket during that strike, and he said years later that he had to return to air because he had nearly drained his life savings.

David Letterman, who owned his CBS late-night show through his production company Worldwide Pants, made a deal with the Writers Guild of America that allowed his writers to come back on the show.

The other hosts — whose shows were owned by media companies — had no such luck. Hosts like Mr. Kimmel and Conan O’Brien returned without their writers, and gamely tried to put together their shows without their standard monologues. Mr. O’Brien had to resort to time-killing gimmicks, such as spinning his wedding ring on his desk, setting a timer to it in the process.

Jay Leno, the host of “The Tonight Show,” infuriated W.G.A. officials by writing his own monologue jokes. “A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a bar,” Mr. Leno said during his opening monologue, which stretched nearly 10 minutes. “The Jew says to the Muslim, see, I have no idea what they say, because there’s a writers’ strike.”

Late-night hosts and their top producers have been on group calls in recent weeks, coordinating a response in the event of a strike, according to a person briefed on the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Unlike the enmity of the so-called late-night wars from the 1990s, the hosts have made a concerted effort to show that they are on friendly, if still competitive, terms. When James Corden signed off from “The Late Late Show” last week, there was a taped segment that featured Mr. Colbert, Mr. Fallon, Mr. Kimmel and Mr. Meyers all together.

Mr. Meyers, the host of NBC’s 12:30 a.m. show, alluded to the devastation of the last strike in a segment late last week.

“It doesn’t just affect the writers,” Mr. Meyers said in the web-only video. “It affects all the incredible nonwriting staff on these shows.”

He added that he was a proud member of the W.G.A., and that he felt strongly that what the writers were asking for was “not unreasonable.”

“If you don’t see me here next week, know that it is something that is not done lightly, and that I will be heartbroken to miss you as well,” he said.

The strike would have to stretch for a significantly longer time before viewers began to see the effects on scripted TV shows and movies, because the production process for them can take months or more than a year. But the mere fact that many productions suddenly stopped was a blow to an industry already rocked in recent years by the pandemic and sweeping technological shifts.

The biggest issue for the writers is pay. They have said that their compensation has stagnated even as television production has rapidly grown over the past decade. The unions representing the writers, the East and West branches of the Writers Guild of America, said “the companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union work force, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”

W.G.A. leaders have called this moment “existential,” arguing that the “the survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of Hollywood companies, said in a statement shortly before the strike was announced that its offer included “generous increases in compensation for writers.”

The primary sticking points, according to the studios, involve union proposals that would require companies to staff television shows with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time “whether needed or not.”

Chris Keyser, a chair of the W.G.A. negotiating committee, said in an interview early Tuesday morning that “philosophically, and practically, we’re very far apart.”

Over the last decade, a period that is often referred to as Peak TV, the number of scripted television shows broadcast in the United States has risen sharply. Writers, however, said that their pay has stagnated.

In the network television era, a writer could get work on a show with more than 20 episodes a season, providing a steady living for an entire year. However, in the streaming era, episode orders have declined to 8 or 12, and the median weekly pay for a writer-producer has gone down slightly, the W.G.A. said.

“They’re making it impossible for younger writers to make a living,” Mr. Kushner, the playwright and screenwriter, said. “Our wages have declined since the last strike.”

The writers want to also fix the formula for residual payments, which have been upended by streaming. Years ago, writers could receive residual payments whenever a show was licensed — into syndication or through DVD sales. But global streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have cut off those distribution arms and pay a fixed residual instead.

For now, the writers’ creative energy will be solely dedicated to their picket signs. Outside the NBCUniversal event, one writer held up a sign that read, “Pay your writers or we’ll spoil ‘Succession.’”

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.

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