You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV’s Other Matt Lauer Problem: Hosts Who Forget Their Business Burden (Analysis)

Morning-news anchor Matt Lauer and late-night host David Letterman would seem as different as, well, day and night. But their careers recently took on a little similarity.

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.

More TV

  • "Raven's Home" Executive Producer, Eunetta Boone.

    Eunetta Boone, Showrunner and Creator of 'One on One,' Dies at 63

    Writer-producer Eunetta Boone, creator of the UPN comedy “One on One” and showrunner of Disney Channel’s “Raven’s Home,” died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 63. Boone was found dead at her home of an apparent heart attack. Boone had most recently worked as showrunner on the third season of the Disney [...]

  • Global Sales for ‘Les Miserables’ Series

    Global Sales for ‘Les Miserables’ Starring Dominic West Ahead of Series Mania

    The BBC and Masterpiece adaptation of “Les Miserables” will play on a numerous international channels after a raft of deals were sealed for the series, which features Dominic West, David Oyelowo, and Lily Collins. Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic has been acquired by broadcasters in Scandinavia and southern Europe, and by several buyers [...]

  • Kevin Hart

    TV News Roundup: Kevin Hart Netflix Comedy Special Drops First Trailer

    In today’s roundup, Netflix releases the official trailer for the comedy special “Kevin Hart: Irresponsible” and Josh Charles joins Showtime’s Roger Ailes series “The Loudest Voice.” DATES Season two of “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner, will premiere on Paramount Network on June 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. The sophomore season will continue the story of rancher John Dutton [...]

  • adidas game of thrones

    5 New 'Game of Thrones' Collaborations Coming in Time for the Final Season

    Some of the biggest lifestyle brands in the world are jumping on the “Game of Thrones” bandwagon this spring, hoping to capitalize on the fandom and popularity of the HBO hit, as it enters its eighth and final season. From sneakers to spirits, these officially-licensed collaborations extend the characters and colors of the show beyond [...]

  • Nicole Richie

    Nicole Richie Joins Fox Comedy Pilot 'Richard Lovely'

    Nicole Richie has been cast in a series regular role in the Fox single-cam comedy pilot “Richard Lovely.” The project follows Richard Lovely (Thomas Lennon), the disgruntled author of the best-selling children’s book series, “Mr. Mouse.” He doesn’t hate children, but rather just everything about them. After a publicity fiasco involving an unexpectedly savvy 9-year-old [...]

  • Gabrielle Union Marketing Summit

    Gabrielle Union on Building a Brand as a ‘40-Year-Old Black Woman From Nebraska’

    When New York & Company approached Gabrielle Union to be their new brand ambassador and the face of her own clothing line, the actress reacted with “disbelief.” “We are not supposed to be getting those offers, I’m not supposed to be having a career resurgence, my value isn’t supposed to be this high,” Union explained [...]

  • Lachlan Murdoch

    New Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch Announces All Employees to Receive Stock in Company

    The new standalone entity Fox Corp. held a town hall on Thursday, just over a day after the official closing of the 21st Century Fox-Disney merger. Fox Corp. chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch led the meeting, at which sources say he announced that all employees would receive stock in the new company. The amount of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content