'Kimmel,' 'Letterman' to return January 2

With the writers strike in its seventh week, there are signs of change on a number of fronts — and these changes may ratchet up the pressure on the Writers Guild of America to reach a settlement. The latenight talkshows are returning to production, marking a subtle but important shift from the period, weeks ago, when the shows’ hosts were delivering donuts as a sign of solidarity. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” announced Tuesday that it 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, with or without an interim agreement from the WGA.

More crucially, the Directors Guild of America is finalizing its own terms for talks with the companies — and their proposals are all bottom-line facts and figures, with no inclusion of ideological issues such as reality TV and animation. The DGA’s spent nearly $2 million on research and consultants to provide the guidelines on how the new-media sector’s going to be monetized and how to pay creatives from those revenues.

The DGA team is hopeful that its numbers are viable enough for a deal. Although 300 Directors Guild members — many of them writers — asked the DGA to hold off on starting talks, the helmers may have partly defused that resentment by offering to share their info with the WGA, making the DGA seem more like helpmates and less like buttinskys.

The DGA hasn’t yet set a date for starting talks with the majors, but it’s widely expected to launch negotiations early next year, assuming the WGA isn’t able to make a deal by the end of the month. The WGA’s talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers imploded Dec. 7 after the AMPTP demanded that the scribes remove half a dozen proposals from the table, and the WGA refused.

The DGA’s current deal expires June 30. In previous contracts, it had already concluded negotiations at this stage, but it’s held off starting talks due to the strike.

At this point, even the WGA’s opponents give credit to the scribe leaders for scoring PR points and public sympathy in conducting the strike.

On Tuesday, for example, the WGA delivered mock indictments of the AMPTP in Encino and New York, alleging conspiracies to steal the Internet and conduct “meaningless negotiations with depraved indifference to the truth and with malice and mendacity aforethought.” As usual, both events received strong support from thesps, with Chris Noth, B.D. Wong, Edie Falco, Eric Bogosian, Mariska Hargitay and Linus Roache showing up in Gotham and Marg Helgenberger and Regina Taylor in Los Angeles.

Still, if the DGA can make a deal with some dispatch, it would immediately raise questions as to why the WGA could not have done the same.

At Monday night’s member meeting in Santa Monica, WGA officers and negotiating committee members received standing ovations and little criticism from the 2,000 members in attendance. And WGA leaders indicated at the meeting that they won’t automatically accept the terms of a deal the DGA reaches — even though moguls have already asserted they won’t give the writers a better deal than the directors.

But the WGA is also aware of the PR image issue: As the strike continues, more of their members and below-the-line workers are losing money. And the WGA is now facing a backlash over its awards-season decisions to picket the Jan. 13 Golden Globes, deny a waiver for the use of clips at the Oscarcast and preemptively deny any request from AMPAS for a waiver for writing on the show.

Though many in town lightly mock Hollywood’s awards obsession, those evenings are also seen as a celebration of good work, leading many to question the wisdom of using kudos as a contract battleground.

Actors are unlikely to cross the picket line, although SAG said only that it was seeking reaction from members who have been nominated before announcing its plans.

Thus far, the WGA has granted waivers only to the Kennedy Center Honors, Liz Taylor’s AIDS benefit and the SAG Awards. Despite earlier speculation that the guild 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 a deal 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 so far to their request for an interim deal. Situation is complicated by the fact that while Worldwide Pants owns the CBS latenighters, the 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. A WGA rep said Tuesday the guild has been talking with Worldwide Pants execs and “is in the process of scheduling a meeting.”

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 the nonwriting staff on his ABC Studios show.

In another development Tuesday, the DGA announced it would share its inside information on new-media compensation with the town’s talent agents. It had announced a similar arrangement with the WGA on Monday. Some of the town’s top agents, mostly notably CAA partner Bryan Lourd, played key roles in getting the AMPTP and the WGA back to the table in late November in the first talks since the WGA went on strike Nov. 5.

Moguls have asserted that the talks fell apart partly because WGA leaders violated the tacit understanding that the latest round of talks would focus on new-media issues rather than more peripheral concerns such as animation and reality jurisdiction and strike sympathy clauses.

For its part, the WGA’s asserted the AMPTP has walked away from the talks aftter not presenting anything close to an acceptable new-media proposal; it has also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the feds over the bargaining ultimatum and began formally asking Tuesday for the individual AMPTP companies to launch individual negotiations with the guild.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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