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STRUCK DUMB: IT’S DAVE’S WORLD: After a brief drought of news from the Hollywood writers’ strike, as parties on both sides seemed to sullenly withdraw with the realization that negotiations were going nowhere fast, the long-awaited dam break has finally come from the late night talk show front.
It probably doesn’t mean much for the balance of the fall season, now in limbo, with scripts depleted and production staff laid off, as late night talk shows work on a very different basis from regular scripted television, in terms of everything from logistics and economics to syndication. In this exceptional little part of the industry, it’s no surprise that the most exceptional of all the late night hosts, David Letterman, would be the one to set the trend that his peers will doubtless follow.
News broke Saturday on the L.A. Weekly blog of writer Nikki Finke — the most essential spot for strike news — that Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants Incorporated, had struck an “interim deal” with the Writers Guild of America. “Worldwide Pants has always been a writer-friendly company,” read a statement by Letterman’s executive producer Rob Burnett. “Dave has been a member of the WGA for more than 30 years, and I have been a member for more than 20 ... Therefore, since the beginning of the strike, we have expressed our willingness to sign an interim agreement with the guild consistent with its positions in this dispute. We’re happy that the guild has now adopted an approach that might make this possible. It is our strong desire to be back on the air with our writers and we hope that will happen as soon as possible.”
Letterman’s decision to continue paying the salaries of the non-writing staff of both his Late Show and Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show (also produced by Worldwide Pants) since the onset of the strike has set an example that the other late night talkers have felt obliged to follow — bringing Jimmy Kimmel, the lowest-earner of the bunch, to rumoured near-bankruptcy. Letterman’s costs, according to Finke, have been prodigious — in addition to $300,000 US a week in salaries for the non-writing staff on both shows, there’s the rent on the Ed Sullivan Theatre and insurance payments for 200 workers.
CBS, Letterman’s network, moved quickly to distance itself from Letterman’s move, and confirm its allegiance to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “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,” the network said in a press release. “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.” Regardless, the New York Times reported yesterday that Conan and Leno will follow Letterman back onto the air by the new year. The big dog has barked.