Idled television talk-show hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are likely to return to work in early January, even if the Hollywood writers strike is not settled by then, Daily Variety reported in its Friday edition.

Most of the late-night shows have been airing reruns since the Writers Guild of America went out on strike for the first time in almost two decades on Nov 5.

NBC stars Leno and O'Brien, along with CBS's David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel refused to cross the picket lines in deference to their writers. But their ratings have suffered.

The networks laid off the shows' production staff, although most of them are still receiving pay checks thanks to the personal largess of O'Brien, Letterman and Kimmel.

Letterman's production company also produces Ferguson's show.

With no end in sight to the strike, several hosts are nearing the conclusion that it's time to return, Daily Variety said, citing unidentified sources close to the situation.

The trade paper said Leno, O'Brien, Letterman and Ferguson may all return around the same time, but that the NBC duo was most likely to return in early January no matter what Letterman decides. Some late-night observers believe Kimmel may also be preparing to go back soon, Daily Variety said.

On the other hand, with none of the hosts eager to be the first to return to work and risk the union's ire, Daily Variety said the hosts may yet still decide to stay home.

When the guild last went on strike, for 22 weeks in 1988, Leno's predecessor Johnny Carson returned to work about two months into the stoppage, and Letterman followed him more than a month later.

Officials from the networks were not immediately available for comment. NBC is a unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal. CBS is a unit of CBS Corp. ABC is a unit of Walt Disney Co.

(Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Philip Barbara)