Late Night TV Hosts Paying Staff Amid WGA Strike: Here’s How Much

A writers’ strike means late-night television hosts will once again be paying payroll — and a lot more.

When the 2007 WGA strike lasted 100 days, many Hollywood workers—not just writers—went without. The exception was the crews of television’s late-night talk shows, thanks to their generous (and yes, well-paid) hosts. These hosts – Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien – returned to TV eight weeks after the strike; only Letterman had writers through his contract with the Writers Guild of America.

Letterman, his longtime rival Leno, and O’Brien have all promised to continue paying employees as long as their shows are off the air. For the 2023 strike, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers have made the same pledge — just a few years after hiring staff members in the earliest stages of the Covid pandemic.

We don’t know how long this writer’s strike will last, but we can assign some sort of rolling price tag to the generosity of late-night show hosts. It will cost each late-night host hundreds of thousands of dollars a month — or more — to cover the bills, according to several people familiar with the payroll who spoke to IndieWire for this story. A former network executive we spoke to for this story believed that a high six-figure estimate was a bit much and more reminiscent of the 2007 “stipend” pay system as opposed to “full-boat” pay.

It’s exciting. In 2007, payroll is one estimated According to the New York Times, $150,000 to $250,000 a week, depending on the number of staff. In today’s dollars, that would be roughly $220,000 to $365,000. “The Tonight Show” was then hosted by Leno, approx 80 non-writing employees; O’Brien paid his 75 staff. Letterman paid the crew of the “Late Show” and Craig Ferguson of the “Late Late Show” through his production company Worldwide Pants. Since Ferguson’s successor, James Corden, hung up last week, there is no more “Late Late Show” or crew.

In our conversations with several former and current Late Night insiders, there was also controversy over whether or not WGA writers would be conspicuous among collectors, or if only non-writing staff would receive the floating pay. It doesn’t matter at the macro level. Those shows have far more non-writers than writers: “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” for example, currently has about 300 staffers, said a person close to the production. Traditional writing rooms consist of maybe a dozen people, give or take.

Spokespeople for Kimmel, Meyers and Fallon’s shows had no comment for this story; Representatives for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” did not respond to a request for comment. WGA spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

"Late Night with Seth Meyers"

“Late Night with Seth Meyers”

Lloyd Bishop/NBC via Getty Image

There is at least one important difference between the late-night TV space then and now. Leno and Letterman were bitter rivals during the recent WGA strike, and one former network executive recalled to IndieWire that they tried to outplay each other (via executive producers, of course) over whether or not to return to TV. Since then, the late-night wars have long since given way to the streaming wars, a fact that could lead to a collaborative comeback. For now, the studios probably wouldn’t mind shedding some time — and hundreds of time cards — off their books.

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