Can Charlie Sheen and his "Two and a Half Men" bosses afford to let the show die?
Both sides have every reason to act like they would continue to thrive without the show — especially in the near term. And while that may be true for its network and studio, the professional outlook isn't as bright for Sheen.
Even if "Two and a Half Men" has wrung out its last laugh about Uncle Charlie being a man-pig, the show will go down as a massive hit for CBS and a billion-dollar asset for Warner Bros. TV.
Sheen doesn't sound like he would have any regrets — TV's highest-paid actor has enough money to fly in ballplayers from across the country for fun. He also insists that he has other offers. But at least one of them — a reported show with HBO — has already turned out not to exist.
CBS and Warner Bros. called the actor's bluff on Thursday when they refused to roll over after he ripped "Two and a Half Men" creator Chuck Lorre. Hours after Sheen (pictured above with Lorre in happier days) bragged that he had embarrassed Lorre "in front of his children and the world," CBS released a statement saying the show was canceled for the season.
There were no guarantees it would be back after that. Sheen, who has ridiculed his bosses even as he has claimed he wants to get back to work, said Friday they were in "breach of contract" for shutting down the show, and suggested he would find a way to "deal with these clowns and take all their money."
The series is built around other characters reacting to Charlie (the name of Sheen's character) misbehaving. No one seems to believe the show could go on without Sheen.
"It can't press on without him," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media. "It's not an ensemble cast. You need him."
If the show can't return after this shortened season, it will still have a long life in re-runs and remain a cash cow. Warner Bros. still retains the syndication rights, and the show is watched almost as much in syndication each week as it is in primetime.
"Great would be an understatement," said one studio insider asked to describe the show's success, who said the show remains on-track to be a billion-dollar asset for Warner Bros. "This is one of the most successful sitcoms in the history of television."
Gary Carr, executive director of national broadcast for media-buying agency Targetcast TCM, said CBS would recover quickly if it lost the show.
"If anything, CBS is the one network that has good bench strength and plenty of shows," said Carr, whose company has bought time on the show in primetime and syndication. "Is it going to kill the network? No."
The short-term costs for CBS will be few: The network could underdeliver to advertisers that bought time on the top-rated sitcom, and have to make up for it by giving away other time. But at least some of those losses will be covered by what CBS saves in the high licensing fees it pays Warner Bros. to air new episodes.
And ratings for the show stay strong even in reruns. New episodes have averaged 14.2 million viewers this season, compared to 10.6 million for reruns. This week's repeat scored 11.5 million viewers, more than most shows do with a new episode.
But whatever the costs for this season, the longer term costs are far greater: "Men" earned CBS $114 million dollars in ad revenue in the first nine months of 2010 alone, according to Kantar Media. It also collects a network-high $206,722 per ad, according to Advertising Age.
Sheen's bad-mouthing his employers — and his rants about ninjas, Thomas Jefferson, ex-wives and the Bible — aren't likely to help his long-term prospects.
HBO immediately denied it was negotiating with the star for a $5-million-an-episode show.
And TMZ reported Friday that Morgan Creek Productions CEO James G. Robinson said he wouldn't allow Sheen a part in the next "Major League" film "if he continues messing up."
Does anyone think the show could press on without Sheen? TheWrap found one — and he's a professional jokester.
"Chuck Lorre has that format down," said "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane on Thursday. "He can do whatever he wants.”
And as a fellow creator of multiple comedy hits, what would he do in Lorre's position?
“We have a no a–holes policy,” he said.