Why a Dave deal with the WGA might make Moonves happy

David Letterman and the WGA appear ready to give Leslie Moonves a belated Chaukah present.

Without much fanfare, Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, which fully owns CBS’s “Late Show” and “Late, Late Show,” has been pursuing an interim agreement with the WGA since the labor union began its strike in November. After initially rebuffing Letterman’s idea, the Guild has now indicated that it’s open to striking a deal.

“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,” Worldwide Pants CEO Rob Burnett said in a statement released Saturday.  “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.”

By giving its blessing to Letterman’s return, the WGA would indirectly put itself in the position of ensuring that one of CBS’s big profit centers—latenight— is fully functioning.
While Worldwide Pants owns its shows, CBS controls the ad time. Having Letterman and Ferguson back on the air—with writers—means Moonves has one less thing to worry about.

By contrast, if Letterman returned without the WGA’s blessing—and without writers— the quality of his show would be impacted. Likewise, it would be tougher for Letterman to attract celeb guest unwilling to cross a picket line.

WGA’s change of heart dovetails with two recent developments.

First, it’s become clear in recent days that NBC’s Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien were planning to return to work early next month, with an announcement of that decision expected as soon as Monday (Daily Variety, Dec. 14). There were indications that Letterman’s shows – and ABC”s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”— were also mulling a return, with or without the WGA’s greenlight.

Second, the WGA on Saturday said it would begin trying to negotiate with individual studios and production companies rather than the AMPTP. It’s believed the Letterman camp got wind of the strategy shift a few days ago and reapproached the WGA with the notion of an interim agreement.

Doing a deal with Worldwide Pants might allow the WGA to claim that it’s not as unreasonable as the AMPTP claims. Just as importantly, it takes what could be a potential PR defeat for the Guild—the return of the latenight hosts— and puts a positive spin on it.

Despite the fact that CBS has much to gain from a Letterman return with scribes, the network’s response to his possible return was lukewarm.

“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,” an Eye rep said. “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.”

A rep for the WGA decline comment.

–Josef Adalian

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  1. Chris Jackson says:

    My sincere apology to Mr. David Letterman, I was informed by someone who was there in the 1979 Comedian Strike of the Comedy Store that David Letterman did not cross the picket line and in fact joined the picket line…. (see my error noted by Kevin Kelton)
    Dec 16, 2007 7:10 AM
    Flag as Spam or Report Abuse [ ? ]
    1979 comedy strike
    hi Chris–
    Just read your online posting about Leno and the ’79 strike. Don’t know whether you remember me, but we knew each other back then. Agreed with your overall posting, especially about Jay being a great guy, but wanted to correct two points. I was a doorman back then–in fact, I was one of the doormen who was ordered to call the police the night George came in. So I’m very familiar with what went down. First off, Letterman never crossed the strike picket line. In fact, he was one of the ones who “broke” Mitzi’s heart by returning from a Tonight Show appearance and picking up a sign to picket. He never ever performed there during the strike. Afterward, yes. But not during the strike. Also, I don’t think Dave was on the night we 86ed George. (It happened a couple of weeks after the strike ended.) Not 100% sure, but I doubt Mitzi would have done that while Dave was on stage–she didn’t want to alienate him again, and George was Dave’s best friend. Like I said, I was there–I was the one who led the cops to George on the stool–so I hope you’ll take this not as a criticism but just trying to set the record straight from another player’s perspective.
    How are you doing these days? Hope all is well.
    Kevin Kelton

  2. IRP says:

    Won’t this open up an studios to big time lawsuits if they declare force majeure and start firing everyone? Basically they have no force majeure grounds if the WGA proves it can make a deal with WWP. In other words it’s the studios’ fault for not pursuing a deal. And while we’re at it, if the WGA wins the NLB filings then the studios are also up the same creek. Hey Variety! Research that! Seems to me like the studios are playing with fire. If I was let go through force majeure (doesn’t matter if I’m a writer or exec or editor) I’d sue the studio.

  3. Ryan H says:

    I think the real value of this is going to be the precedent set by whatever deals are struck. The late night shows really manage to sidestep a lot of the issues that the strike is about. No one is rushing out to buy DVDs of past seasons, or downloads last month’s political commentary.
    From the statements being made, I suspect that in exchange for the quick interim deal and official blessing of the union the WGA is going to get a nice soft deal. So not only do they look more reasonable, when they do get back to the bargaining table presidents are already set.

  4. Ben Miller says:

    Seems like a logical move by Dave’s show here. They have no need to worry about paying Internet residuals because shows like Dave’s are less likely to bring in big download/streaming coin compared to dramas, scripted comedies and features. Plus there are no thorny issues over Internet jurisdiction for original Internet content. Dave’s show can simply give that up because they’d want WGA writers whether the show stays on TV or goes to the Internet someday.
    What will be interesting is what happens afterwards if Dave’s show gives the writers a good, but ultimately meaningless, cut of Internet residuals. Will scripted shows automatically capitulate to the writers and match the high residual percentage or will they stay obstinate and keep offering 1.2/0.3 and no original content jurisdiction?

  5. David C. Daniel says:

    It sounds like the beginning of the end for the WGA, not the strike. The WGA’s message to Letterman and WWP should be a request for help getting the AMPTP back to negotiating. There’s going to be a lot of fur flying and it won’t be from strike beards.
    Maybe the writers in this town don’t really want a union if the WGA membership lets this happen.

  6. ed says:

    It doesn’t sound like a “me too” kind of deal. The phrase “consistent with its positions in this dispute” to me sounds like they will meet most of the demands of the WGA, which is likely to be better than what the AMPTP is going to do. I think it helps the cause of the writers by saying, “See? These guys think it’s a fair deal” and puts pressure on the studios. But, as you point out, we don’t really know until when/if details are made public.

  7. wait a minute says:

    The terms of WWP’s “interim” deal need to be spelled out. If it’s just a “me, too.” acceptance it only means that whatever the final results are, they’ll agree. The guild gets nothing, but gives CBS a huge advantage in the late night arena. It will divide the late night writers and punish the shows that took the first hit.

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