Charlie Sheen may never work in Burbank again, but we think Warner Bros., CBS and Chuck Lorre will finally decide to continue producing "Two and a Half Men" anyway – in a new format or with a new star.
Reports are already surfacing to suggest that CBS and Warner are considering this.
On Monday, E! Online reported that CBS chief Les Moonves talked over the weekend with actor John Stamos about replacing Sheen. A CBS rep declined comment, but an individual close to the network downplayed the conversation, saying it "originated from two guys kidding around at a cocktail party."
But whether it's Stamos, Heather Locklear, who had a recurring role on the sitcom in the past or someone else, we think somebody will eventually replace Sheen on "Two and a Half Men."
Sheen said on the NBC's "Today" Monday that he's tired of pretending he's "not special." Well, we don't think he's so special that this show can't go on. Here's why:
>> The show is not in decline and CBS can't replace it easily.
Averaging 14.2 million viewers through Feb. 14, "Two and a Half Men" is in its eighth season still the most widely watched comedy on television. In terms of the key 18-49 demographic, it's No. 2, averaging a 4.6 rating/11 share this season, trailing only ABC's "Modern Family" (4.9/13).
"Men" achieved its peak popularity in season two, when it averaged 16.5 millon viewers. But its numbers are actually better than they were back in season five, when that average was just 13.6 million sets of eyeballs.
CBS has other top-rated comedies that it can plug into the Monday 9 p.m. slot, notably "Big Bang Theory" and "Mike & Molly," both created and executive-produced by "Men" mastermind Lorre, the lighting rod for Sheen's rants over the last week.
Averaging over 13 million viewers an episode this season, "Big Bang's" numbers are comparable. But the network burned promotional wherewithal last fall to re-launch the show on Thursday, moving it from the Monday 9:30 slot behind "Men" from which it came.
A move back to Monday would undermine CBS' impressive gains on the ultra-competitive Thursday-night schedule this season.
>> The other Monday night shows rely on ‘2 1/2 Men’ as a Lead-In
"Mike & Molly" has averaged 11.5 million viewers in its first season, leading out of "Men" at 9:30 p.m. on Monday.
CBS believes in the series enough to renew it and order several more episodes, as it attempts to fill the hole left by not having "Men" originals for the rest of the season.
But how will "Mike & Molly" do without a strong "Two and a Half Men" lead-in? Will it yield a ratings performance anywhere close to those of "Men" at 9 o'clock? Will it be able to yield the close to $200,000 per-30-second-commercial that the network currently gets for "Men"? Will CBS be able to build an entire night of comedy around it?
The odds are long. Unfortunately for CBS, they get even longer if CBS tries to replace "Men" with a brand-new series.
Will a re-constituted "Men," sans Sheen, draw over 14 million viewers per episode? The odds seem tough for that, too.
>> Warner Bros. is leaving too much money on the table.
Already writing off eight episodes of "Two and a Half Men" this season, Warner is enduring a triple-whammy, losing out not only on about $32 million in licensing fees from CBS, but also tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees and barter advertising sales from off-network runs in broadcast-syndication and on cable.
In 2006, Warner sold "Men" into a first cycle of broadcast syndication, according to Broadcasting & Cable, fetching license fees totalling about $2 million an episode from stations, as well as participation on national advertising that added about $2 million per episode to the mix.
In November, the production company sold a second cycle of "Men," fetching fees that were beyond the usual 50-percent-of-first-cycle rate.
Both cycles were sold to TV station groups with the contractual understanding that the show would run through the 2011-12 season. And if this is indeed the end of "Men," both cycles will be significantly truncated, costing Warner millions.
According to Bill Carroll, top programming analyst for station rep firm Katz Media, Warner would lose out on 39 weeks of license fees and barter for each cycle, with the first cycle ending in December 2013 instead of August 2014, and the second cycle ending Nov. 2020 instead of August 2021.
There's also cable sales to consider, with Warner selling "Men" last fall to News Corp.'s FX for $850,000 per episode.
Not producing the final eight episodes for "Men's" eighth season will cost Warner $6.8 million alone. Choosing not to produce 24 season-nine episodes will triple that cost using the same math.
Certainly, Warner seems in no hurry to see the "Men" crew scatter to the wind. On Monday, the studio annonced that it will pay more than 100 crew members for four cancelled shooting weeks.
>> If anybody can make this work creatively, it's Chuck Lorre.
>> In an ego battle between Sheen and Lorre, the top TV comedy producer in Hollywood wins.
Having publicly battled the likes of Butler and Roseanne in the past, as well as alcoholism, Lorre may be evolved to the point to where petty personal shots don't bother him.
But we're guessing that Lorre might have personal motivation to prove this enterprise can go on without its troubled star.
"It could happen," noted an individual close to CBS. "Nobody has ever said this show is cancelled."
>> It's been done before.
True, prospects for shows in their advanced seasons replacing key talent aren't great.
Ironically, a number of media outlets have noted that ABC's "Spin City" didn't last long after Sheen himself replaced the Parkinsons-striken Michael J. Fox in 2001.
But there are some mitigating factors here.
For one, executive producer/co-creator Bill Lawrence had left the show ("Men" has experienced no such defection from its key brain trust yet).
And "Spin City," under Sheen and the also-added Heather Locklear, was actualy on a ratings upswing when ABC pulled the plug. Yep, it's true — the show's average audience spiked 18 percent to 8.4 million in its sixth and final season.