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Letterman's rivals quick to jump on chat-show host's confession

But industry sources say he was right to own up to affairs with his staff

Career suicide or media masterstroke? The jury is still out over US chat-show king David Letterman's unprecedented on-air confession of affairs with female production staff.

His very public mea culpa succeeded in snuffing out a $2m blackmail plot and thwarting any chance of the news channels revealing his dalliances first. The twice-married 62-year-old father of one admitted on his CBS show: "I have had sex with women who work for me on this show."

He then later joked, "I know what you are saying, 'I'll be darned – Dave had sex!'"

It drew gasps of disbelief and nervous laughter from his studio audience – and from his television rivals, who have not been slow to stick the knife in.

Hours after the show was screened, Robert "Joe" Halderman, a producer on CBS News's 48 Hours, pleaded not guilty to attempted grand larceny.

Jay Leno, Letterman's main rival and the current ratings leader, could not resist the temptation to join in. He told his own audience: "If you came here tonight for sex with a talk-show host, you've got the wrong studio."

Messages posted on Hollywood gossip sites have questioned the wisdom of the confession. Having spent more than a quarter of a century poking fun at the indiscretions of other celebrities, Letterman finds the the tables have now been turned. This fact was not lost on the broadcaster, whose minute-long declaration included reference to a desire not only to save his life but also his job.

But while some gossip sites have continued to speculate on the potentially damaging and more lurid details of the affairs, some American commentators have largely backed his decision.

In the New York Daily News, David Hinkley wrote that it would be unlikely to "derail his career". The journalist Bill Zehme, who has written extensively about American late-night television, claims Letterman may draw even more fans. "It was manful," he said. "It was kingly. Dave has the gravitas. At this point in his life he's just a man in control."

The public relations veteran Cindi Berger called it "very smart" to get ahead of the story, particularly because Letterman "was able to control the message". And the CBS News legal analyst Lisa Bloom said Letterman "absolutely had to" do what he did.

She said: "Once this matter went in front of a grand jury, as it has, there's at least a dozen citizens who are getting wind of the allegations. Once it's in the district attorney's hands, there's always the possibility of leaks. So he had to get out there first. He had to tell the story. He had to acknowledge his part in it."