LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The union for striking Hollywood writers cried foul on Thursday over late-night TV comic Jay Leno writing his own jokes for his return to the air from an eight-week hiatus forced by the walkout.
The Writers Guild of America said the host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," who is a WGA member, violated union strike rules by preparing the monologue he delivered on Wednesday for his first new broadcast in two months which, like most other returning talk shows, saw a bounce in viewership.
Some 10,500 WGA members walked off the job on November 5 in a dispute with film and TV studios that hinges on disagreement how writers should be paid for work appearing on the Internet.
The Writers Guild has insisted that its members are barred from preparing scripted material for "struck productions," including their own shows in this case.
In his opening monologue, Leno said he was "on the side of the writers" but admitted writing his own jokes for the show. The guild immediately seized on the issue.
"A discussion took place today between Jay Leno and the Writers Guild to clarify to him that writing for 'The Tonight Show' constitutes a violation of the guild's strike rules," the union said in a terse statement.
Guild spokesman Neal Sacharow said WGA West President Patric Verrone talked with Leno over the phone.
"It was a very amicable conversation," Sacharow said. He denied that the talk amounted to a reprimand. "Jay's been a great supporter of the strike and very vocal in his support, so I think the discussion today was just about clarification."
Sacharow said it was unclear whether Leno would abide by the WGA's wishes. "I think there was an understanding," he told Reuters.
NBC, a unit of General Electric Co, issued a statement defending Leno, asserting that the WGA's most recent contract with the studios contains language excluding from its provisions "material written by the person who delivers it on the air."
Although the WGA contract expired four days before the strike began, the terms and working conditions remain in effect under federal labor law and supersede any strike rules imposed by the WGA, according to the network.
In other words, NBC said, "The WGA agreement permits Jay Leno to write his own monologue for 'The Tonight Show."'
The dispute is more than academic for NBC, which is reported to reap $50 million in profit annually from Leno, who kept his show off the air and in reruns for two months in support of striking writers, even as ratings for repeat telecasts of his show plunged.
Ratings for Leno and his CBS rival David Letterman rebounded sharply as viewers flocked to see them return.
Wednesday's "Tonight Show" broadcast averaged nearly 7.2 million viewers, up 2.2 million from his pre-strike average this season and more than 3 million above the number tuning in to his reruns in November.
It also marked the biggest audience in over a year for Leno, who has long ranked as the most watched late-night host on U.S. television, according to Nielsen Media Research.
By comparison, Leno was averaging just 4 million viewers a night in reruns during November, the first month of the strike, down 32 percent from the same period in 2006.
The CBS "Late Show with David Letterman" also got a big bounce from its first new broadcast since the strike but remained at No. 2 behind Leno.
Letterman, who reached an independent deal with the WGA last week allowing union writers on his staff to return with him, averaged 5.5 million viewers for his first day back.
That tally is Letterman's highest since November 2006. It compares with 3.8 million watching him in the weeks before the strike and a 3.7 million average for November's reruns.
The shows that immediately follow Leno and Letterman on NBC and CBS, respectively, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," enjoyed more modest audience bumps for their return broadcasts.
ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which gained a "lead-in" boost from higher-rated "Nightline" news broadcasts during the strike, actually saw its audience decline slightly for Wednesday's show, compared with both pre-strike and November levels.