Kimmel returning to late night

Letterman will also be back, even without WGA

Latenight’s repopulation continues, as “Jimmy Kimmel Live” announced plans to return Jan. 2, while “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” are expected to do the same, interim agreement or no.

Despite earlier speculation that the Writers Guild of America would likely grant the request from Worldwide Pants to strike an interim agreement with the Letterman production banner in order to send “Late Show” and “Late Late Show” scribes back to work, such a pact is now considered a long shot.

Nonetheless, Worldwide Pants prexy-CEO Rob Burnett remained optimistic that one may still be attained.

“We are willing to agree to the writers’ demands that are within our control, so we have no reason to believe that an interim agreement can’t be achieved with the WGA,” Burnett — also exec producer of “Late Show” — said in a statement. “As a result, our only focus is on returning Jan. 2 with writers.”

It’s understood that Worldwide Pants execs have been frustrated by the guild’s chilly response to their request for an interim deal. Situation is complicated by the fact that while Worldwide Pants owns the CBS latenighters, company cannot dicker with the guild on the central issues of new-media distribution because CBS controls most of the new-media rights on those shows.

Worldwide Pants’ bid for the interim deal has been spearheaded by Burnett; Lee Gabler, the former CAA co-chairman who joined Worldwide Pants earlier this year; and Letterman’s attorney, Jim Jackoway.

Eye insiders said there were plenty of signs this week both Gotham-based “Late Show” and L.A.-based “Late Late Show” began preparing for the resumption of production. A CBS rep declined comment.

A return of the broadcast webs’ major latenight hosts all at once is unprecedented: After the Sept. 11 attacks, the latenight gabbers trickled back on the air, rather than all resuming on a single night. During the 1988 writers strike, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” came back first, followed later by NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman.”

Meanwhile, Kimmel’s announcement came a day after NBC formally announced the return of “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” on Jan. 2. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” returns to its normal 12:05 a.m. slot the same night with an all new episode.

Still in limbo are Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” both of which are owned by Viacom, as is the cabler.

In a statement, Kimmel said he agonized over the decision, but — echoing comments by competitors Leno and Conan O’Brien Monday — invoked the needs of his nonwriting staff on the ABC Studios show.

“Though it makes me sick to do so without my writers, there are more than a hundred people whose financial well-being depends on our show,” Kimmel said. “It is time to go back to work. I support my colleagues and friends in the WGA completely and hope this ends both fairly and soon.”

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