After eight weeks of reruns, David Letterman should be in a joking mood next Wednesday: Not only does he join his late-night brethren back on the air, but he'll have his writers backing him up.
So Dave was the last to announce his return. Big deal — now the joke's on Jay, Conan and the other writer-less hosts.
An interim agreement with the Writers Guild of America will allow the full writing staffs for "Late Show with David Letterman" as well as "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" to return to work, even as the Hollywood writers strike continues to shutter much TV and movie production. It could prove to be a huge advantage for both these CBS late-night shows, which are produced by the Letterman-owned Worldwide Pants.
"I am grateful to the WGA for granting us this agreement," Letterman said in a statement Friday. "This is not a solution to the strike, which unfortunately continues to disrupt the lives of thousands. But I hope it will be seen as a step in the right direction."
NBC's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" as well as ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" had already announced they would resume Wednesday without benefit of their writing teams. (Letterman goes head-to-head against Leno, as well as the first half-hour of Kimmel's show.)
Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert" planned to return writer-less on Monday, Jan. 7.
Resisting such an arrangement, Rob Burnett, president and CEO of Worldwide Pants, had actively sought an interim deal. The guild has been discussing agreements with several small independent producers since talks between producers and the union broke down Dec. 7.
"We immediately said we were interested," Burnett said Friday evening in a telephone interview.
Guild leaders said in a letter to membership Friday that Worldwide Pants accepted "the very same proposals that the guild was prepared to present to the media conglomerates when they walked out of negotiations on December 7."
"We had no problems with the guild's demands," Burnett said.
Now, the task for "Late Show" is "revving up the machine," he said. "We'll be ready Wednesday, even if it takes a few more days after that to get up to speed."
Central to the contract dispute has been compensation for work distributed via the Internet and other digital media. The guild also has called for unionization of writers working on reality shows and animation.
A WGA executive, Jeff Hermanson, told Reuters that talks between the union and Letterman’s company had produced a “full, binding, independent agreement” that includes provisions for paying writers for work distributed over the Internet.
Much speculation has been focused on how the other late-night shows will fill their time deprived of monologues, skits and other prepared material. All the hosts — with the exception of NBC's Carson Daly, who returned to the air Dec. 3 — are members of the guild, making those without an interim deal subject to union rules that would severely limit what they can do.
(Msnbc.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
Meanwhile, doubts have been raised about whether their shows will face a problem booking A-list guests, who may not be willing to cross a picket line.
When writers went on strike in 1988, only two late-night shows were affected: Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show and Letterman's "Late Night," both on NBC. Carson made a deal with the guild shortly after returning to the air, but Letterman went weeks without his writers' services before the strike was settled.
This time, it will be funny business as usual.
Meanwhile, Hollywood studios said Friday that striking writers have now lost more in salary and benefits than they had hoped to gain by walking off the job.
In the message posted on its Web site and YouTube, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers claimed losses by writers in the eight-week strike have exceeded $151 million.
That’s the price tag the Writers Guild of America put on its proposed three-year deal with studios.
“The strike continues because the union’s leaders are focused on jurisdictional issues that would expand their own power, at the expense of the new media issues that working writers care most about,” the alliance said in a statement.
Compensation for work distributed via the Internet and other digital media has been central to the contract dispute. The guild also has called for unionization of writers working on reality shows and animation.
The union responded by saying the contract proposals by the big studios would cause writers even more economic harm in the future.
“To sidestep this fact, they erroneously claim we are focused on other issues,” the guild said in a statement. “The conglomerates are responsible for creating the economic havoc. They should put their energies into making a fair deal with writers rather than issuing misleading statements.”
The strike that began Nov. 5 has also been costly for other industry workers. Production has been shut down on dozens of TV shows, with losses for crew members exceeding $250 million, according to the alliance message.
The alliance Web site features a constantly updated ticker with the studios’ estimate of writers’ losses. The figure is based on West Coast guild data from 2006, the site said.
Talks broke down Dec. 7 after the union rejected an alliance demand that a half-dozen guild proposals be taken off the table, including jurisdiction over reality and animation writers.
While negotiations with the writers union are at a standstill, studios are preparing to begin contract talks with the Directors Guild of America, perhaps next month.
Digital compensation also is expected to be a key issue for directors.
Whether a deal by directors will affect the writers dispute is unclear. The guilds traditionally have followed a practice of pattern bargaining, with one contract considered a template for others.
But the writers guild has said previously that it wishes the directors well, but noted they “do not represent writers. Our strike will end when the companies return to negotiations and make a fair deal with the WGA.”
The directors guild has gone on strike only once, for just five minutes in 1987.