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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