In one of TV’s most bizarre episodes, Letterman in 2009 took to the stage of his “Late Show” on CBS and confessed to the audience that he was fending off an extortion attempt due to the fact that he had engaged in consensual affairs with female staffers on his show. It’s not hard to liken that episode to the current surreal situation in which NBCUniversal now finds itself after firing Lauer in the wake of allegations that he sexually harassed various NBC News employees – though of course there are nuances of difference.
Letterman suffered little backlash from his disclosure, though several women questioned the power he had over subordinates. He retired from the show in 2015 and is hailed as one of the great broadcasters of the age. Lauer is, at present, under a microscope. He issued a statement of apology earlier Thursday, noting “some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly.”
The difference in the two hosts’ trajectories? Letterman’s behavior was, more or less, tolerated, even though it had the look of leveraging power over a subordinate. NBC News has said its current management never received a complaint about Lauer’s workplace behavior until an employee came forward earlier this week with information that, clearly, was damaging enough to warrant the anchor’s dismissal. And it happened at a flashpoint in popular culture, with women coming forward to make allegations about sexual harassment by many prominent personalities, including Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Charlie Rose.
“He probably couldn’t get away with it today,” says Mark Spund, who oversees the employment-law practice of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, speaking of Letterman.
Letterman’s ability to survive that drama, and thrive after it, illustrates why some top-level TV personalities may conveniently forget their errant behavior can sway the flow of millions of dollars — not just to their wallets, but to the bottom line of publicly traded companies like Comcast or CBS. The former owns NBCUniversal and the latter is the broadcaster of “CBS This Morning,” which recently jettisoned Rose after similar allegations of harassment surfaced.
People like Lauer, Rose, and Letterman hold rarefied positions. They are (or were) part of a select group that serves as ambassadors to the public on behalf of the companies that pay them. It’s a small assemblage. Norah O’Donnell , Gayle King, Stephen Colbert, and James Corden are at CBS (with Jeff Glor soon to join them at “CBS Evening News”). Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Jimmy Fallon, Megyn Kelly, Al Roker, and Seth Meyers are at NBC. George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, Michael Strahan, David Muir, and Jimmy Kimmel stand at ABC. You could put Trevor Noah into the mix for Comedy Central, or even Viacom. These people are on the air at minimum five days a week, not to mention the multiple public appearances they make each year.
Fox, perhaps with great foresight, spared itself this complex and often costly issue. It has no daily national morning or late-night program, or evening newscast.
But these luminaries are more than hosts or entertainers. They have a direct bearing on the business of CBS, Comcast, and Walt Disney. Little wonder Comcast’s NBCUniversal realized it could not keep Brian Williams at the helm of “NBC Nightly News” in 2015 after he misled viewers about the details of a previous reporting trip. Why doesn’t that keep certain top personalities from acting in ways that would undermine their corporations, let alone careers and families?
It’s true, some corporations build morals clauses into employment contracts, says Michelle Lee Flores, an employment-litigation specialist at the Cozen O’Connor law firm in Los Angeles. But it’s not clear that they are enforced with any great zeal when it comes to people who may be essential to the health of a TV show that generates millions of viewers and millions of dollars in ad revenue. That could give a person incentive to act with impunity for a long period of time.
Such behavior can’t last forever. “A frog wouldn’t jump into a hot pot,” Flores says. “But if you wade in and turn it up one degree at a time over a long period, even the frog will get cooked.”
Media companies are famous for trying to exert control over their positioning, their press, their ad pricing, and the way their ratings data gets sliced and diced. You’d think they’d work a little harder to put up other kinds of guard rails as well.