4 Reasons CBS, WB Waited So Long to Pull Sheen's Plug

Could it be the audience's perception of Sheen has undergone a critical shift?

Let’s hope Charlie Sheen has kept some of his millions away from the hookers, booze and blow because it’s unlikely he’s going to find a big job in the near future.

After weeks of mounting Major League craziness by the part-time comic actor/full-time aging hedonist, CBS and Warner Bros pulled the plug today on the rest of the current season of “Two and a Half Men.” Chances are good that the hit sitcom will be placed on permanent hiatus, no matter how strong the ratings currently are.

Those of us who’ve followed this story are as exhausted as Sheen should be.  We’ve watched him enter a world-class level of meltdown lately: increasingly bizarre and angry public statements, including claiming some wacky overnight home rehab fixed him (at other times, claiming he never needed rehab to begin with). He’s whipped himself up into a high school-grade frenzy against the series’ creator. He’s made silly surprise public appearances and set up publicity stunts. He’s sporting gold teeth.

And my favorite is his alleged plan to buy a compound of L.A. houses for himself and, depending on the time of day, either his ex-wives and kids or his current porn pals.  Or all of them. Sheen seems to fancy himself a Beverly Park version of Kody Brown.    

And days before he was finally allowed to return to work (and get his crew paid) after a forced month off, something he’s whined about for weeks, he embarked on a little adult vacation to the Bahamas with a few minimally-dressed, physically-enhanced ladies.  We all remember how well those weekend jaunts have worked for him in the past.

Most of all, we might not be studio and network chiefs, but we knew a firing was inevitable.  And we couldn’t figure out why CBS and WB continually refused to grow backbones – or a more appropriate body part – and finally cut the cord.

Why that didn’t happen, and now it did, might be due to four reasons.

1. MONEY

The series has earned the two companies a gazillion dollars. For its network primetime run, TAAHM ranks #2 among all current TV series in terms of ad dollars.  According to Kantar Media, it generates over $3 million for CBS per each half-hour show. That translates to more than $155 million in ad revenue for the network from last season alone.

That’s pocket change for WB, which sells the show in domestic syndication. The studio has deals that could bring in a reported $2 billion – that’s with a B – for repeats through 2020-2021. And that excludes international sales and DVDs. The shutdown of this season’s remaining shows and the question mark attached to next season translates to at least a $250 million loss for WB.

These executives have to consider such decisions against the interests of a board and stockholders (as well as their own:  their year-end bonuses are tied to program performance).  Networks and studios have propped up lesser stars who delivered a good revenue stream.

2. AUDIENCE RESEARCH

It’s impossible to believe that WB and CBS made the decision to end TAAHM’s season without pouring over foot-high stacks of audience research definitively showing that Sheen’s antics were finally turning off the public. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that both companies have been commissioning ongoing research as far back as Sheen’s first drunken, drugged, hooker-filled binge to monitor whether viewers were forgiving.

And judging by the companies’ decision to stand by the show and star, they were. For a while at least.

I can picture the focus group sessions: a bunch of Docker- and Croc-wearing 45-year-olds in Vegas taking time away from the casinos, sitting around a table with bowls of M&Ms and being asked adjectives to describe Sheen. Initial words might’ve included “playful,” “hard-living,” “irrepressible” and “funny.”

More recent language?  “Addicted.”  “Sleazy.”  “Creepy.” “Troubled.”  “Crazy.”

If you ever wondered why a network moves a new, seemingly unproven series to an important time period when it seems too soon to do so, it’s because executives are seeing audience research showing the series is trending up in popularity. This time around, however, it’s likely that research is showing Sheen is so unpopular, and on the verge of becoming even more so, that he’s not salvageable.

Sheen might laugh it off now but that toxic data will follow him for years.

3. THE STATIONS

While CBS and WB are not licensed by the federal government, the stations that air the show – in primetime and in syndication – are.  (Many of which are also owned by CBS.)

The new Congress, always on the lookout for family values it can glom on to, can easily start a groundswell of complaints about TAAHM and against the stations that carry it.

Forget about the conservative Right. Stations can get uncomfortable pressure from within their own communities. As one local station general manager once told me about his parent network’s faux pas, “The network president doesn’t have to walk into my church on Sunday and squirm as the minister directs his sermon at me.” Stations don’t want to deal with lost advertising, viewer complaints and – closer to home – pressure from staff and family.

4. AND FINALLY … EGO

It’s been a long time since a network star lodged such vitriolic comments publicly against a producer, studio and network. Cybill Shepherd and Roseanne were probably the last to do so and I don’t recall either of them landing big-budget starring vehicles lately.

So a few hours after Sheen throws his latest round of bombs at TAAHM creator Chuck Lorre, the season’s killed.  Did CBS and WB have infallible research proving the actor’s DOA?  Probably so. Did Sheen finally ramp up the crazy factor dial to such a high level that he seems incapable of salvation?  I’d guess that too.

But after hearing his hate-filled, self-satisfied rant that eviscerates everyone from Lorre to Thomas Jefferson, to pull the plug via a terse joint studio/network statement? Priceless.

Hey Charlie:  Enjoy the Bahamas. You’ve got lots of time.