WGA May OK ‘Letterman’ Return

NEW YORK The writers for CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman may be the first to return to work through a deal with Letterman’s independent production company, Worldwide Pants.

That company is negotiating with the WGA. The pact would allow the late-night show to come back on the air with its entire staff, including scribes, intact.

The news was first reported Saturday by The New York Times.

“We respect the intent of Worldwide Pants to serve the interests of its independent production company and its employees by seeking this interim agreement with the WGA,” CBS rep Chris Ender said in a statement Saturday. “However, this development should not confuse the fact that CBS remains unified with the AMPTP and committed to working with the member companies to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with the WGA that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace.”

The late-night shows had been expected to resume production after the holidays following the Dec. 7 breakdown in the negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP that dashed hopes for a speedy resolution to the writers’ strike.

The late-night talkers have been hit hard by the strike. Because they went into repeats the first day of the writers’ walkout, their ratings have taken a dip. Additionally, the shows’ hosts have been paying the salaries of their non-writing staffs out of their own pockets.

Letterman, who was the first to begin writing checks to crew members of Late Show and Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, is in a unique position because his company Worldwide Pants, not CBS, owns the two programs.

The other late-night shows, including NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Late Night With Conan O’Brien and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel are fully or partially owned by the respective networks.

So, if the strike continues into 2008 as expected, those shows would return without their writers and surrounded by picketers, making it hard for them to book guests. That would put them at a great disadvantage to the CBS shows if Worldwide Pants inks a deal with the WGA.

Worldwide Pants’ individual talks with the WGA may be a precursor to a new guild strategy. The WGA is expected to begin approaching individual CEOs at the respective major studios and other AMPTP companies in the hope of finding one or more who will break ranks with the management group.

“We want to do everything in our power to move negotiations forward and end this devastating strike,” guild negotiators told members in a weekend e-mail. “We have therefore decided to reach out to major AMPTP companies and begin to negotiate with them individually.”

The WGA negotiators noted their legal right to pursue such a strategy, and the tactic seemed to notch a quick, if narrow, win via the pending deal with Worldwide Pants.

AMPTP rep Jesse Hiestand dismissed the WGA’s direct-to-companies maneuver in a statement issued Saturday.

“This is merely the latest indication that the WGA organizers are grasping for straws and have never had a coherent strategy for engaging in serious negotiations,” Hiestand said. “The AMPTP may have different companies with different assets in different businesses, but they are all unified in one common goal—to reach an agreement with writers that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace.”

Observers gave the guild only long-shot odds at success in attempting to disrupt negotiating solidarity among the major studios and broadcast networks. But it will bear watching if additional smaller production companies come aboard with narrowly sketched WGA agreements.