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Guild, 2 CBS shows reach accord

Dave Letterman and Craig Ferguson will return with writers.

December 29, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — David Letterman's production company brokered an independent deal Friday with the Writers Guild of America that will allow "Late Show With David Letterman" and its sister program, "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," to return to the air Wednesday with their writing staffs.

Under the interim agreement, Worldwide Pants Inc., which produces and owns both programs, signed on to terms sought by the union, the guild said. It is the first company to negotiate a new contract with the guild in the 8-week-old writers strike.

The WGA said the deal was "a comprehensive agreement that addresses the issues important to writers, particularly new media," although it did not provide details about the contract. But any subsequent deal the guild would negotiate with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers would supersede the agreement with Worldwide Pants.

Rob Burnett, chief executive of Worldwide Pants, said it was up to the guild to disclose the exact terms but that his company agreed "to the demands the WGA made from the outset," including residuals from episodes distributed over the Internet.

"I am grateful to the WGA for granting us this agreement," Letterman said in a statement. "We're happy to be going back to work, and particularly pleased to be doing it with our writers. 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."

The accord means that when Letterman and Ferguson resume production next week, the CBS hosts will be the only late-night comedians back on the air with their writing teams, giving them a substantial advantage over their competitors. Letterman's first guest when he returns Wednesday is scheduled to be real estate mogul and "The Apprentice" star Donald Trump.

NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert all said this month that they would return with new shows in January, but without their writing staff. Because their programs are owned by their respective networks, those hosts could not make the kind of separate arrangement with the union that Worldwide Pants did.

So while Letterman will again reel off his famous Top 10 list and other written gags, Leno -- who is prohibited from writing under strike rules -- will have to rely mostly on improv and guest interviews. The CBS hosts will probably be able to book more top-shelf celebrities than their rivals because many actors have already indicated their reluctance to cross the picket line to appear on a late-night show.

Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg said Friday that his members "will be happy" to appear on Letterman's and Ferguson's shows, and he encouraged the other programs to reach their own deals with the WGA.

Which shows viewers will gravitate toward remains an open question. Nearly every late-night program has suffered serious audience erosion since the strike forced the shows into repeats Nov. 5, with top-rated NBC shows suffering the biggest losses. Letterman's viewership was down 19% in the first five weeks of the labor stoppage compared with the same period last year; Ferguson was down 8%.

CBS, which stands to be hit hardest by the strike among the media companies because it is the most dependent on advertising revenue, said in a statement that it "is very pleased that Dave and Craig will be returning on January 2."

Still, Burnett of Worldwide Pants shrugged off any competitive advantage his shows might have.

"The strike is a deadly serious issue," he said, noting the financial toll the walkout is taking on picketing writers. "Do we have a competitive advantage? I'd give it up tomorrow if it meant everyone could go back to work. Maybe this will somehow lubricate the system and brings this to an end."

The Worldwide Pants deal is a rare bright spot for the WGA, which is engaged in a bitter standoff with the studios. Although the agreement only covers about 20 of the 10,500 striking writers, it allows the union to cast itself as a reasonable negotiating partner. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, however, dismissed the deal as "the latest indication that the WGA's organizers may not have what it takes to achieve an industrywide deal."

The guild said Worldwide Pants accepted the proposal it was prepared to present to the alliance before negotiations broke down in early December. But even after Worldwide Pants offered to give the union the terms it sought two weeks ago, the negotiations did not appear promising until late this week, according to sources familiar with the discussions. At one point, Comedy Central's Stewart called the guild and urged it to make a deal with Worldwide Pants, Burnett said.

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