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Guild denies awards-show waivers for writers

HOLLYWOOD — On a day when NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien dealt a blow to striking film and television writers by announcing they would cross the picket line to go back on the air, the Writers Guild of America tried to wrest back leverage by denying waivers to the producers of the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

The decision means that Dick Clark Productions and the Foreign Press Association will not be able to employ writers to craft the script for the Globes, which airs on NBC Jan. 13, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not be allowed to show clips of movies and past award shows in the February telecast of the Oscars without paying residuals for their use. People close to the guild's board said the union also decided it would not grant a waiver allowing writers to work on the Oscars, although the academy has not yet asked for such an exception.

The WGA's stance essentially makes the high-gloss awards shows "struck productions," and as such would likely be boycotted by Hollywood's A-list writers and the actors sympathetic to their cause. The move underscores the tensions between the guild and the major studios, which typically enjoy major promotional pushes from the telecasts.

In letters sent Monday night to the producers, Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, said the union decided that granting their requests would not help the guild's position in the seven-week-old strike.

"We must do everything we can to bring our negotiations to a swift and fair conclusion for the benefit of writers and all those who are being harmed by the companies' failure to engage in serious negotiations," Verrone wrote. "Our board concluded, reluctantly, that granting a waiver for the Academy Awards would not advance that goal."

Bruce Davis, the executive director of the academy, said he was taken aback by the WGA's refusal to grant the organization a waiver to use the film clips. The academy was planning to wait to make its request for a writing waiver for host Jon Stewart and his writing staff after "the dust settles," an effort that now appears fruitless.

"This is striking more at the heart of what we do," Davis said.

In a statement, Dick Clark Productions expressed its disappointment that its request was denied but said it hoped to work out a separate deal with the WGA so it could employ writers for the Globes.

The union's decision about the awards programs came on the heels of NBC's announcement that Leno and O'Brien will go back on the air Jan. 2.

The comedians, who are both members of the WGA, said they support their writing staff but must return to work to save the jobs of the rest of hundreds of others who work on the shows. Since NBC laid off the production crews at the end of November, Leno and O'Brien have been paying the salaries of their staff members themselves, a significant expenditure they appeared unwilling to shoulder indefinitely.

"Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it's my responsibility to get my 100 non-writing staff, which were laid off, back to work," Leno said in a statement. "We fully support our writers, and I think they understand my decision."

O'Brien, who described himself as an "ardent supporter" of the guild, said in a separate statement that he was forced to decide whether to "go back to work and keep my staff employed or stay dark and allow 80 people, many of whom have worked for me for 14 years, to lose their jobs."

The decision by the NBC hosts to return to the air after their shows languished in reruns for six weeks marks a sobering turn for the union, which last month trumpeted Leno's appearance on the picket line as evidence of the high-profile support for the writers' cause.

NBC's Carson Daly, who is not a WGA member, had been the only late-night host to resume production, a move that drew derision from many writers. The guild also lambasted Ellen DeGeneres last month when she resumed taping her syndicated daytime talk show.

The union's response to the decision by Leno and O'Brien seemed muted by comparison.

"NBC forcing Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien back on the air without writers is not going to provide the quality entertainment that the public deserves," the guild said in a statement.

Similarly, the shows' own writers took pains not to criticize Leno or O'Brien, whose personal payments to their staffs earned them substantial goodwill.

"We knew it was just a matter of time before late night would come back," said Joe Medeiros, the head writer for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," as he picketed outside of NBC's Burbank headquarters. "But Jay has been very supportive to us, and we support him."

The news about Leno and O'Brien's return came two days after David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, said it was seeking an interim deal with the guild that would allow its programs — "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" — to return to the air with their writing staffs. Such an agreement, which the guild said it is open to making, could put both CBS shows at a significant advantage over their competition, especially if prominent guests refuse to cross the WGA picket line to appear on the NBC programs.

Unlike Letterman, Leno and O'Brien do not own their shows and cannot make similar arrangements. ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central's Stewart and Stephen Colbert are also unable to strike separate deals with the WGA because their programs are owned by their networks. On Monday, representatives for those shows said there were no new developments about when they will return to the air.

The sharp ratings declines suffered by most of the late-night programs contributed to a sense of urgency among the programs' producers in recent weeks. As the strike has dragged on, reruns of the shows have performed poorly, with NBC weathering the steepest drops. Both "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show" — the latter earns $50 million in profit a year for NBC — were down 38 percent during the first five weeks of the strike compared with the same period last year.

Times staff writers Matea Gold, Maria Elena Fernandez, Rachel Abramowitz, John Horn, Chris Lee and Meg James contributed to this report.