David Letterman's sex scandal could be the very thing that helps boost the 30-year veteran back to the top of the heap after nearly 15 years in second place.
Based on overnight ratings from the Nielsen company, Letterman's "Late Show" boasted a 4.2 rating, higher than anything rival NBC had opposite him in that time slot — or even anything on their prime-time roster, according to The Associated Press.
After the scandal over an alleged blackmail attempt by a fellow CBS employee broke Thursday, Letterman took to the air that night to admit that he had engaged in affairs with female show staffers and that someone had threatened to go public with the information if he didn't pay $2 million.
On Monday night, Letterman was back on the air and he apologized once again, this time to his wife, Regina Lasko, a former "Late Night" staffer he married in March after 23 years of dating and with whom he has a 5-year-old son. While Nielsen didn't have an estimate on the size of Letterman's audience Monday night, it did report that the overnight rating was slightly lower than Thursday's tally, when 5.8 million people tuned in to hear his mea culpa.
Police alleged that Letterman was the subject of an extortion scheme by "48 Hours" producer Robert Halderman, who they say tried to blackmail Letterman with threats to reveal affairs with staffers at the show. Halderman pleaded not guilty Friday to attempted grand larceny charges and was freed on $200,000 bail. If convicted, Halderman faces five to 15 years in prison.
Ever since Conan O'Brien took over the "The Tonight Show" on June 1, Letterman has been building up a lead in the ratings, boosted a week after O'Brien's debut when the previously scandal-averse host made a joke at the expense of the daughter of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin that resulted in some protests and calls for his resignation. That lead has stayed steady or grown in the interim months.
Letterman lost his ratings crown to former rival Jay Leno in 1995, when Hugh Grant came on "The Tonight Show" to try to explain his arrest with a prostitute in Hollywood. Leno held on to the ratings lead until he stepped down earlier this year.