Through a bizarre extortion attempt and an on-air admission of philandering, late-night king David Letterman has become a perfect subject for the type of ribbing that he has specialized in for over 25 years. A CBS News employee named Robert J. Halderman has been indicted in the extortion plot and faces a charge of grand larceny that could lead to up to 15 years in prison. While Halderman, a long-time producer for CBS’s “48 Hours,” awaits trial and the public scrutinizes the actions of a high-profile TV personality, CBS will have to actively work to repair Letterman’s image and answer questions about the work environment fostered by Letterman’s production company Worldwide Pants.
What makes this episode particularly frustrating for CBS is that the “Late Show with David Letterman” was experiencing unprecidented success as rival network NBC juggled its late-night lineup over the summer. “The network has been put in a precarious position of trying to steer clear of fallout from some highly questionable activities engaged in by its biggest star, who is experiencing his biggest surge in popularity (and ratings) in years,” The New York Times noted over the weekend. The scandal is an opportunity for Conan O’Brien to gain viewers as he continues to establish his place at the “Tonight Show” desk.
The extortion plot centers on a relationship that Letterman had Stephanie Birkitt, his longtime personal assistant. According to reports, Birkitt shared a residence with Halderman until last month. The New York Post reported on Monday that Halderman harbored a grudge after Letterman banned him from office parties and staff events.
The news of office affairs could likely drive viewers away from Letterman’s program, especially female viewers. NBC News anchor Ann Curry notes that men and women are having different reactions to the story. “It’s very interesting. Men and women think very differently about this story,” she told the Associated Press. “The men I’ve talked to think, `How could a person within your own company kind of betray you like this?’ But the reaction I’m hearing from women is completely on the other end. They’re saying, `How could you have affairs, multiple affairs, with members of your own staff and how does that create a fair and equal working environment?'”
On Monday morning, Curry interviewed Halderman’s attorney, Gerald Shargel, on the “Today” show. (Video here). In an exchange that turned combative, Shargel questioned the veracity of Letterman’s on-air admission. “The public should not simply take the word of David Letterman at face value,” he said. “He’s a master of manipulating audiences, that’s what he does for a living.”
The question now is what that audience will look like as the case drags on.