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Letterman’s Trials: Is the Worst Still Ahead?

Monday is media day for The New York Times business section, which prominently features the usually thoughtful and always clever David Carr and his column called “The Media Equation.” In the most recent edition, Carr’s headline was “The Big Tests for Letterman Are Still Ahead.” Carr makes the argument that two issues still loom: “the first having to do with media dynamics” and the “drip, drip, drip of coverage” which could “erode his standing.” Secondly, Carr wonders whether the story of his case could actually undercut his comedy.

Let’s take the second point first. While America’s new insight into the Real Dave will definitely affect everything from the stand-up jokes to casual guest remarks, it will only serve to make the comedy more complex, not less funny. Everyone likes self-deprecating humor, and some of Dave’s best jokes in recent memory have come the past few days at his own expense– such as the woman in his navigation device refusing to speak to him and his quip Friday: “Are you sure you want to be seen with me?” It also creates another layer of possibility and innuendo for every guest, including Larry David on the second night after the blackmail story broke and Steve Martin’s line last week: “It shows you are human. We weren’t sure before.” With time, the humor is only likely to improve.

On the first point, Carr points to the 24/7 digital media universe that does chew on scandal like a cow chews on cud. Carr suggests that Gawker, TMZ and ever-ravenous tabloids and cable channels will bark at every scrap of raw meat thrown them by Joe Halderman’s attorney, Gerald Shargel, a notorious scrap thrower.

While Carr is correct about Shargel and the tabloid piranha, I do not share his view that any of it will undermine Letterman, if indeed it is “more of the same.” Drip-dripping alone will not kill Dave– it won’t even hurt him. Bill Clinton– who it must be remembered was President of the United States, not a standup comedian and talk-show host–had extra-marital sex with an intern and emerged with his popularity largely intact. While most Americans said they disapproved of his behavior, a majority said it had nothing to do with job performance. And that was at the White House, not the Ed Sullivan Theater! Office romance and office sex are old hat to most observers – and while they may not condone the behavior, they are unlikely to condemn it. And the curiosity factor will only serve to increase ratings, which will help Dave’s career, not hurt it.

Like all scandals, eventually interest will subside and neither of Carr’s points will be relevant anymore. Unless, of course, there really is something more (uh, different) yet to come out. If there were accusations of non-consensual sexual behavior or a legitimate sex harassment claim, that could muddy the waters significantly for Letterman. But short of that, the “drip-drips” will become increasingly faint and–ironically for CBS–end a run of spiked ratings.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

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