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David Letterman Makes Deal
January 2, 2008

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

David Letterman is one happy guy.

“I am grateful to the WGA for granting us this agreement,” Letterman said in a recent statement to the press.

A few weeks back Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, went public with its plan to seek a separate deal with the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA). The comedian got what he wanted.

As a result, the Letterman show and Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show,” also produced by Letterman’s company, get to go back on the air with help from their writers pumping out jokes.

Unlike their competitors who have no similar agreements, which includes Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, Letterman and Ferguson are now going to be able to get the big-name celebs on their shows.

Two important facts explain Letterman’s huge score.

The first fact has to do with history. Back in 1988 when the writers last had a strike, the late-night shows affected were the “Tonight” show, then-hosted by Johnny Carson, and “Late Night” hosted by Letterman. Both shows were on NBC at the time.

Carson was able to cut a separate agreement with the Writer’s Guild while Letterman had no agreement and consequently had to host his show for weeks minus the writers. That kind of experience can leave an indelible mark in a late-night comic’s memory bank.

The second fact has to do with business. Sometimes it really does matter who owns the show.

Unlike his competitors, Letterman was able to negotiate directly with the union because his company owns his program as well as Ferguson's.

With shows like NBC's Leno and O’Brien, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert going back on the air without having made deals with the union, writers intend to exert heavy pressure.

In a joint letter to their members, the WGA East and WGA West said, “In the case of late-night shows, our strike pressure will be intense and essential in directing political and SAG-member guests to Letterman and Ferguson rather than to struck talk shows.”

Also included in the letter was the following: “At this time, picket lines at venues such as NBC (both Burbank and Rockefeller Center), The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the Golden Globes are essential.”

What does it mean?

“Struck talk shows” is a reference to those of Leno, Conan, etc., who will obviously find it a lot more difficult to book guests. In addition, the shows will most likely serve as targets of intensified picket activity.

All of which means the funny business doesn’t seem so funny right now.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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