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TV & Radio

Now, we go live to a breaking sex scandal...

Following the David Letterman revelations, rumours are now flying about a rampant 'culture of depravity' at the cable channel ESPN

If, like many on the far side of the Atlantic, you were upset by revelations about David Letterman's extramarital office romances, it's probably best to keep your TV firmly tuned away from the sports channels.

In the week that a former Letterman employee claimed in Vanity Fair that the king of late-night chat presides over a "hostile" and "sexist" work environment, another sex scandal has hit American broadcasting.

It involves ESPN, the world's largest sports network, which is based in the small city of Bristol, Connecticut. At its centre are dozens of lickerish TV executives, scores of fruity allegations and one very prurient journalist. The hack, if that is the right word, is A J Daulerio, the editor of Deadspin.com, an influential US sports blog owned by the Gawker media empire. The executives all work at ESPN, in roles of varying seniority. And their private lives have been dragged into the public domain for one straightforward reason: revenge.

Mr Daulerio claims that ESPN's PRs lied to him to prevent Deadspin from exposing embarrassing details of a relationship between its married 46-year-old baseball analyst Steve Phillips and a 22-year-old production assistant called Brooke Hundley.

News of that affair eventually broke on the front page of the New York Post the week before last. The subsequent scandal included enough juicy bells and whistles to fill the local supermarket tabloids for several days. Last Sunday, the mounting scandal persuaded ESPN to fire Mr Phillips.

Angered at missing out on a valuable "scoop" because of what he saw as dishonesty by the broadcaster's PR team, Mr Daulerio duly decided to get even. He told readers: "It's probably about time to just unload the in-box of all the sordid rumours we've received over the years about various ESPN employees." Deadspin gleefully proceeded, over a period of several days, to post rumours of sexual liaisons, harassment and extramarital affairs involving a string of ESPN executives, some extremely senior, under headlines linking the Disney-owned network to such phrases as "horndoggery" and "sexual depravity."

The project sparked outrage and hilarity, together with a terse statement from ESPN. "Deadspin's self-admitted rumour-mongering is despicable behaviour by any standard and shows callous disregard for its impact on people's lives," the company said. "It is not worthy of response and those responsible should be called to account."

Mr Daulerio, however, says his rumour-mongering is likely to continue. In an interview with The Independent, he claimed to have heard of "around 20 more" illicit affairs at the company, which he is tempted to publish. "ESPN has had a problem for some time," he said. "It's an open secret."

He blames ESPN's infidelity "problem" on its business model, which sees production teams routinely posted to faraway sporting locations, where they stay together in hotels, as well as the culture at the company HQ. "The Bristol campus is very small. It's the only thing in town. Most of the people who work there have nothing else to do. There's a constantly rotating cast of new interns and production assistants. This is something that's rampant."

The wider question is where such public sex scandals leave an American broadcaster. In a nation where public sexuality remains curiously taboo, a firm perceived as a hotbed of "depravity" could seem out of kilter with public sentiment. TV employs disproportionate numbers of interns – the people most often at the centre of such scandals. "It's their first real experience of a professional setting, so they don't know how to handle themselves," says Lauren Berger, who runs the website internqueen.com. "If an older executive shows an interest in you, it can be difficult to react."

The industry's profile also ensures that its sex scandals get disproportionate coverage. "Actually, this is a dirty little secret in most industries," says Scott Ventrella, an executive coach and author of The Power of Positive Thinking in Business. "Infidelity is far more common than you think."

America may disprove of infidelity, but that hasn't stopped viewers from tuning into ESPN. Letterman's ratings, meanwhile, are the highest they've ever been. Ethical or otherwise, and regardless of the headlines, an old truth still prevails: sex will always sell.