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Letterman, Leno, Kimmel Back, But How Funny Will They Be?

David Letterman
(AP)
David Letterman

Happy 2008! I'm back from my travels and have spent the day reading up on all the news I missed while away (though news of Benazir Bhutto's assassination was everywhere, the international press doesn't follow Hollywood labor negotiations as closely).

The box office hit a record high in 2007, with the six major Hollywood studios bringing in more than 10 percent over last year's numbers--with nearly $10 billion: each of the companies topping a $1 billion take for the first time ever. Paramount came in first, with about $2.15 billion in ticket sales. But that wasn't cause for celebration, as attendance was flat compared with last year.

New media made some movement over the holidays. Rupert Murdoch cozied up to Steve Jobs and Fox signed a deal with Apple's iTunes. At MacWorld on Jan 14th, Apple will reportedly announce that iTunes will offer movie rentals of Fox and Disney movies. Other studios-- including Paramount--may also be on that list by January.

But the real question: what's happening with the strike? The good news: the two-month work stoppage hasn't rattled media company stocks. In fact they're all (Sony, Viacom,News Corp, CBS, Disney) either flat or slightly up. Part of that is because the stocks were already trading at historic lows, with Wall Street concerned about whether digital revenues can make up for an industry-wide slowdown of traditional growth.

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Folks at the studios would argue that the strike is a good time for them to clean house, and that's reassuring the street. The truth is, the media giants are pretty insulated by their diversity--Disney has ABC, which is reliant on scripted programming, but also ESPN, which is totally strike-proof, as well as the Disney Channel, which does quite well with reruns.

Now we're starting to see some indications of movement. The Directors Guild is expected to meet with the studios to negotiate their contract which expires this summer, in about a week. If the DGA makes progress, that'll put pressure on the WGA to step up and make some compromises.

Perhaps most important, some of the late night talk shows are returning to air on January 2nd. David Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, reached a separate agreement with the writers guild to allow his show and the following program on CBS, "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" to employ regular staff writers.

Thanks to that deal, the Screen Actors Guild supported its members appearing on CBS shows, while they're encouraged to boycott the other nets late night shows. For the big show, Letterman booked Robin Williams.

To counter, Jay Leno booked Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, for the "Tonight Show." Jay and David aren't the only ones going back to work on Jan 2. "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" on NBC and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" will also relaunch on Wednesday, but haven' announced their guests yet.

How will the shows that haven't struck a deal with the writers do it? Well, they'll be relying heavily on interviews, because they won't have writers scripting any comedy material. Viewers will be thrilled to have fresh content. I'm just curious to see how funny they are without writers.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.