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Whither Letterman, whither late night?

December 11, 2007 |  6:13 pm

NEW YORK — With talks between the writers and the studios at a standstill, the speculation is building: Will the late-night hosts break ranks and come back on the air?

So far, all the network hosts -- except NBC’s Carson Daly -- have stood firm and refused to do live shows without their writers. They’ve even covered the salaries of their nonwriting staffs, some of them out of their own pockets.

Now many in the industry are watching to see what late-night dean David Letterman does as the strike drags on.

Bill Scheft, a longtime writer for "Late Show With David Letterman" and the Writers Guild strike captain for the program's writers, talks to the CBS comedian regularly and said he does not believe Letterman has made up his mind yet.

“I’m sure he’s struggling with it,” Scheft said as he picketed in front of ABC today. “In fact, I know he is.”

For the last five and a half weeks, Letterman’s production company has continued to pay the salaries of staff members on his program and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” a payroll that adds up to about $300,000 a week. The comedian has committed to do so through the end of the year.

“He’s done a great service,” said Scheft, who last spoke to Letterman a few days ago. “He sounds like a guy who is comfortable in the fact that he’s done the right thing and continues to do the right thing. I know when and if he comes back, it will be the right thing. Believe me, no one is thinking about this more than him.”

The writers won’t be upset if Letterman decides to resume production, Scheft said.

“If you ask people on the line, they would have been thrilled if the guys just stayed off a month for sweeps,” he said.

In fact, having the late-night hosts back on the air could help the writers’ cause, he added.

“David Letterman, on the air without writers . . . is the greatest ally the writers would ever have, because he would rail nightly,” Scheft said. “He could be more influential as an on-air stone in people’s shoes. The leverage for us might be him and Jon and Conan talking trash.”

-- Matea Gold