Left Coast Bias: Talk-Show Wars Just Keep Delivering

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A high-profile sex act discussed openly on a talk show undoubtedly turned the tables of the late-night wars. But it wasn’t David Letterman’s recent revelation; it was 14 years ago, when Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant, “What the hell were you thinking?” and took off on a long run atop the 11:35 p.m. fiefdom.

And now comes another high-profile case of extra-curricular activity at a time when the talk-show wars are kicking up more news than ever. Or are they? Leno’s numbers are about where they were expected to be, Conan needed time years ago to build his audience at 12:35 and was going to need it again, and Letterman—well, that was a curveball.

All the attention surrounding the talk-show circuit was supposed to go quietly into the (late) night after a period of tumult that ended with Leno moving to 10. But the men who stand on a star and tell jokes are front and center once again. No matter what the ratings or diminishing ad dollars say, the late-night world and its über-personalities are as big a part of the television universe as ever.

Let’s start with Dave. The focus trained on this little scandal has been over the top, and the results will only be positive in the long run, from a Machiavellian business perspective. Much as when Hugh Grant made the decision to cheat on Liz Hurley (which NBC-haters would probably call the only Hollywood move worse than taking Leno out of 11:35), the scandal has driven sampling, and many of the new eyeballs will probably stick around.

Any calls for Dave’s ouster are comical, so we won’t even bother with that. And Letterman’s response to the whole situation has been right out of the PR 101 handbook, as he has gotten out in front of the situation beautifully (so far).

Yes, the media will be obsessed with the story for a while, and unsurprisingly so. High-profile sex scandals make for good tabloid news, and this is a fun one for many reasons, especially given its many ironies.

There’s the irony that Dave is not exactly a sex symbol. The irony that the self-described “creepy” behavior comes from a man that is legendarily media-shy outside of his five nights a week. Heck, even the irony that the alleged extortionist worked for low-brow trash passing as “news” programming like 48 Hours Mystery, a show that probably would have loved this kind of tawdry story.

Barring something truly earth-shattering coming out, this, too, will pass—whether or not Dave does end up weeping on Oprah one day. And when it does, it will leave better ratings in its wake.

Speaking of ratings, the Leno story won’t die anytime soon because too many parties long to see the show flop. Rival networks will smartly leak numbers and angles to journalists to try to paint a picture of a decision gone awry. NBC must continue the unenviable task of preaching long-term patience to a media that has less of it than ever, thanks to the 24/7 news-and-rumor cycle that sadly now drives journalism.

While the debate rages on about how exactly NBC will make big coin off ratings that peak in the low 2s even on nights when The Biggest Loser is the lead-in, the actual Nielsens really aren’t any different than anyone objectively expected.

NBC’s current regime will stick with Leno, and say they just need to put better shows in front of it. But it leads me to wonder what might happen if someone else is running the whole show one day. Someone like, I dunno, Comcast.

Would someone in the Brian Roberts-Steve Burke-Jeff Shell-Ted Harbert camp reinstate Leno at 11:35 immediately? I have no idea, but it makes for fun fantasy football. What I do (think I) know is the audiences would then fall back into their familiar patterns, much as we all returned to Coca-Cola after the New Coke experiment. Of course, that would mean essentially paying off Conan and delivering him to ABC or Fox. (Where have we heard this before?)

As for O’Brien, while his numbers look a bit modest, he is an acquired taste, as he proved in his first go-round at 12:35. But he built a strong following once, and now he needs the patience to do so again. Or he could just sleep with Kate Gosselin, admit it on his show and quickly leave Letterman in his rear-view mirror.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com