Letterman’s Scandal Is Over, But Can He Beat Leno?

by | March 10, 2010 at 8:27 AM | Late Night, The Tonight Show, TV News

Late-Night Rivals Jay Leno and David Letterman (NBC/CBS)

Late-Night Rivals Jay Leno and David Letterman (NBC/CBS)

NEW YORK — Dave Letterman can heave a huge sigh of relief after the guilty plea Tuesday of a TV producer charged with trying to extort him.

No time-consuming legal mumbo-jumbo will be dogging Letterman. No more messy, embarrassing public revelations of his sexual affairs — real and alleged. No more probing into the private life of a man who famously cherishes his privacy, despite how masterfully he managed, and even exploited, the world’s invasions into it, when his crisis demanded.

Now it’s over. Robert “Joe” Halderman now faces six months’ jail time for trying to shake down Letterman to the tune of $2 million, closing a squalid, shocking and titillating chapter in the late-night saga.

But it was a chapter that had frankly overstayed its welcome. The public, forever seeking the next new thing, has already moved on.

And that goes double for fans in the late-night arena, where in recent weeks the spotlight had shifted from CBS (home of ‘Late Show with David Letterman‘ and, by coincidence, Halderman’s former employer, CBS News) to bumbling, bedeviled NBC.

NBC was the site of the latest round of late-night follies, which had nothing to do with Letterman.

Instead, Conan O’Brien lost his footing as the host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ then his job, and took his leave in January. Jay Leno, after flopping in prime time, scrambled back to “Tonight” after just nine months’ absence.

Of course, the weak competition Conan posed against Dave was a lucky twist in the Letterman drama. It certainly didn’t hurt Letterman that last fall, when he was weathering the scandal of his career, his nightly rival wasn’t Leno, who had beat him in the ratings for years, but instead O’Brien, whom he beat handily, despite (or even thanks to) his troubles.

Now, with Leno freshly reinstalled at “Tonight,” Letterman is spared concerns about lawsuits to concentrate on resuming a faceoff with Leno for viewers that began in 1993.

That’s where Letterman’s attention is focused.

And that’s where the audience’s attention is focused, too.

The operative late-night narrative has reverted, at least for the time being, to the horse race of old. Now, observers can wait for Leno’s welcome-back surge to subside so they can see if he maintains his lead in the ratings over Letterman, as he did for so long before handing off “Tonight” to O’Brien last May.

Or has Leno’s popularity been damaged in the meantime, by his failure with the prime-time “Jay Leno Show” or by seemingly evicting O’Brien from “Tonight”?

Time will tell.

In any case, the irrelevance of the Letterman affair was vividly displayed in an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair that desperately tries, and dismally fails, to breathe new life into it.

Mostly through unnamed sources, the article retraces the “collision course” of “the cash-strapped veteran newsman and the multimillionaire entertainment star.”

It quotes Madeleine Smithberg, a one-time segment producer for his show, who equates Letterman’s magnetism to none other than Bill Clinton’s.

“I would be in my office with my back to the door,” she is quoted as saying. “Suddenly, I would notice that the hair on my arms and neck would be standing on end. I’d turn around and there would be Dave, standing in my doorway. The man is electric!”

And on and on it goes. But the effect of the article: Who cares anymore?

The viewing public is so over what the article salaciously titled “Big Trouble at 11:35.” It’s on to the next thing.

The next thing: Who will win the ratings war, Dave or Jay? And — oh, yeah — what will Conan do next?

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