Letterman Co. Scores in Prime Time

Monday, June 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — If he didn't have to watch his health, you could almost picture David Letterman leaning back in his chair with a big, fat cigar.

That's what entertainment moguls look like, right? Quietly this spring, he's become one, with his production company, Worldwide Pants, having its most successful stretch since it was formed when he joined CBS in 1993.

Both of the pilots the company pitched were picked up on prime-time network schedules this fall: ``Welcome to New York,'' a half-hour situation comedy, will be on CBS, and ``Ed,'' a quirky drama inspired by ``Northern Exposure,'' will be on NBC.

Rob Burnett, Worldwide Pants president, predicts impending world domination.

``Our goal is to have every show on every network and cable outlet be a Worldwide Pants production,'' he said. ``We're on track — two shows this year, four the next year, 16 the year after. I think it's by 2012 when every show will be a Worldwide Pants production.''

That's the ``Late Show'' joke writer in Burnett coming out, but it's hard to disguise his pride and excitement.

Hitting two-for-two with your pitches in one development season — a 1.000 batting average — is about as unusual in television as it is in baseball.

With one notable exception — ``Everybody Loves Raymond'' — Worldwide Pants hasn't seemed much different than the vanity projects that production companies for big stars often amount to. The company produces ``Late Show'' and Craig Kilborn's ``Late, Late Show,'' but two other prime-time productions, ``The Bonnie Hunt Show'' and ``The High Life,'' vanished as quickly as they appeared in the mid-1990s.

``Welcome to New York'' is about the experiences of an Indiana weatherman who comes to the big city. Although many people assume it's based on the life of Letterman, a former Indiana weatherman, the idea actually comes from Midwestern comedian Jim Gaffigan. When actress Christine Baranski signed on, CBS did, too.

``Ed,'' written by Burnett and Jon Beckerman, has a more complicated history. The story of a New York attorney who loses his job, dumps his wife and moves back to his Midwestern hometown was pitched to CBS four years ago. It was then called ``Stuckeyville.''

The network wanted a more traditional half-hour comedy, which Burnett resisted. The idea withered for awhile as Beckerman and Burnett paid more attention to the ``Late Show,'' but it was revived in an hour-long format in recent months.

CBS turned it down again, but gave Burnett permission to shop the pilot around to other networks. NBC quickly agreed to air it.

It sets up a potentially awkward situation: Some of the leading minds behind CBS' late-night franchise working for another network. Even stranger, NBC is the network that six years ago handed Letterman the biggest rejection of his life when it picked Jay Leno as the ``Tonight'' show host instead of him.

``Ed'' would never have made it on NBC if the executives who picked Leno were still in charge, Burnett said. Instead, there's a new management team.

``It's a terrific relationship because it feels very clean for us,'' Burnett said. ``We have nothing to offer them except our show and they have nothing to offer us except a spot on their schedule. It's a very nice and pure relationship.

``If it's cancelled after three weeks, my attitude will change completely,'' he said. ``But right now, we all love each other.''

Burnett won't second-guess CBS President Leslie Moonves for passing on ``Ed.'' It probably fits NBC's schedule better, since the network has a younger audience and has more need for a ``lighter'' drama to balance its more intense hours, he said. CBS has more of a mix.

``Even if the show were to go on and become an enormous hit for NBC, it doesn't necessarily mean it would have been a hit for CBS,'' he said. ``It can be a situation where he's made the right decision and NBC made the right decision.''

Moonves, asked about NBC's pickup of ``Ed'' at a news conference, said, ``We will miss Rob, but we hope `Ed' fails.''

``Les has been very kind about it,'' Burnett said. ``We're all just human beings trying to make a living. I took that as a joke. I thought it was pretty funny.''

Burnett said he hadn't detected any concern from CBS that Worldwide Pants' success might mean less attention paid to the ``Late Show.'' He is stepping aside as that program's executive producer, replaced by two longtime staff members, Maria Pope and Barbara Gaines.

Letterman may not be as hands-on at Worldwide Pants as Burnett, but he did take the ``Ed'' pilot script home one weekend to do some rewriting. His role is more metaphysical: As with ``Late Show,'' most of the staff members at Worldwide Pants are intent upon doing work that they hope Letterman will find funny. His sensibility dominates, even if he doesn't.

Burnett couldn't answer when asked how many people work at Worldwide Pants. One thing he knows for sure is that there soon will be more, although not too many.

``We will always be a boutique,'' he said. ``We have had opportunities to really expand and get big development funds and floors of executives, but we've never had an interest in that. The way that we attract talent to Worldwide Pants is that we focus on the projects that we have really singularly.''


Elsewhere in television ...

SAVE THE MUSIC: President Clinton and Billy Joel will talk about the importance of music education next week on NBC's ``Today'' show. The morning show, along with VH1, is promoting instrument drives across the country as a way of raising money for music education. Clinton and Joel are scheduled to appear Friday (June 16). Earlier in the week, musicians from Backstreet Boys, the Goo Goo Dolls, Hootie & the Blowfish and Bon Jovi will appear.


David Bauder can be reached at dbauder``at``ap.org