Will Revelations Hurt Letterman?

NEW YORK They say in show business there is no bad publicity, but how will David Letteman’s shocking revelations of sexual relations with female employees and of a foiled extortion plot over them impact his Late Show?

The still-evolving saga comes at a crucial time for the veteran late-night host.
He has been on a roll for the past two weeks, celebrating his largest ratings victory over The Tonight Show in 15 years and boasting such A-list guests as Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Then came the bombshell admission on Thursday. The news was so shocking and unexpected, the audience at The Late Show kept laughing through most of Letterman’s 10-minute confession, waiting for a punchline to a joke that never came.

But beyond the initial shock, media pundits and ad buyers don’t see any long-term impact on Late Show’s ratings or relationship with advertisers and give Letterman props for the way he handled the situation.

“While some of David Letterman’s audience and advertisers may be disappointed, it’s unlikely to cost him many of either,” said John Rash of Campbell-Mithun. “By choosing to handle an unfortunate situation with the proper authorities and by breaking the story himself, whatever damage that has been done is probably already contained.”

In fact, the foiled extortion plot may help Letterman, according to Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate.

“I think he has been on a publicity run and this will help attract even more viewers,” he said. “Most if not all advertisers will stay since he came forth and appears to be the victim.”

Letterman garnered a lot of sympathy over the 2005 kidnap attempt on his son.
Of course, the circumstances now are drastically different, as sexual relations between bosses and their subordinates are generally not condoned.

But while some viewers will be upset, “the core viewers are likely to be loyal to Dave,” Katz TV’s Bill Carroll said.  

As for advertisers, “just as some were pressured during the Sarah Palin controversy, some may be pressured now, but most look at the audience performance more than the controversy alone. Ratings are helped or hurt by attention and this brings attention, but ‘The Late Show’ is on a positive roll rating wise helped by the CBS’ prime time success and NBC’s declines.” 

CBS’ solid performance on Thursday and NBC’s fourth-place finish may have helped more than the scandal, which broke late on the East Coast, for Late Show to top NBC’s The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien last night.

According to preliminary estimates, Late Night averaged 1.2 rating/6 share among adults 18-49 vs. 1.0/5 for Tonight Show.

In the metered markets, which cover a larger swath of the country and includes older viewers, Letterman’s household ratings victory was much more decisive, 2:1 over the Tonight Show.

As for booking guests, the scandal’s sexual implications may deter politicians who run on moral values, but will probably have little effect on celebrities as sex scandals are pretty common and easily tolerated in Hollywood.

Letterman’s top guest Thursday night, actor Woody Harrelson, set the tone, opening with “It’s been an auspicious night” and proceeding to trade quips with Letterman over the ordeal.

While the Friday show was pre-taped on Monday and will certainly have no references to the Thursday events, it remains to be seen if the topic will crop up on the Late Show for the weeks to come. –James Hibberd contributed to this report

Nielsen Business Media