The Biz: Marketers dubious on sitcom's future

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ABC's decision to keep "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" on the network's schedule following the death of lead actor John Ritter has some advertisers worried.

Marketers are calling in their concerns to their media agencies, but executives at those shops are quick to reassure them that their investment in the show will not be lost, despite the uphill battle facing the show's producers to continue without Ritter.

"The inventory that we purchased is under package guarantee, it's not an issue," said Donna Wolfe, director- broadcast negotiations, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide.

"Advertisers know that the ratings will be made good by the network," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-national broadcast research for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia.

That ratings guarantee is why ABC is anxious to keep the series going. The Walt Disney Co. network was counting on the show to be a tent pole for its Tuesday night lineup of family comedies. According to Starcom Entertainment's prime-time analysis, which the Publicis Groupe media shop just released, "8 Simple Rules" gave ABC a huge boost in ratings in the highly coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic, climbing from a 3.2 rating in 2001 to a 4.1 in 2002, a lift of 28% in the first season of the Ritter vehicle.

"8 Simple Rules" earned, on average, a respectable $151,240 per spot according to Advertising Age's survey of broadcast unit pricing. Last season, the show raked in $97.5 million in national TV ad dollars and $25.4 million in spot buys, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

hiatus

The sitcom will still open the network's Tuesday lineup at 8 p.m. this week, airing the first of three episodes that were shot before Ritter died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition. After those episodes run, the show will go on a hiatus of two or three weeks while the writers retool the series to incorporate the death of Ritter, who played lead character Paul Hennessey.

The show plans to return to its slot with current cast members in more prominent roles, including actress Katey Sagal as Cate Hennessy, Kaley Cuoco as Bridget Hennessy, Amy Davidson as Kerry Hennessy and Martin Spanjers as Rory Hennessy. Ritter's character will not be replaced.

"It will be more dramatic and more emotional than a typical sitcom," said Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment in a phone conference call to the press last week. "It is uncharted territory. What we are doing is what we believe is the best thing for the show, and for everyone involved in the network and studio."

Susan Lyne, president-ABC Entertainment, and Stephen McPherson, president-Touchstone Television, joined Braun on the call. "It's a challenge clearly and we have a responsibility to deal with it right," said Lyne.

McPherson said it will still be the same show. "It will be a transition from the start with the three episodes, and then we will be following it up with episodes exploring how the family deals with a death in the family."

There is a suspicion among media buyers, however, that after the changes are made, the show will no longer be a comedy.

"This was a lighthearted comedy that is now forced to deal with a very serious subject," Schwartz said. "They have to deal with it carefully and with sensitivity."

"This is one of their building-block comedy programs," said Harry Keeshan, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Omnicom Group's PHD. "So you wonder ... about the time period it's in and the night it's on, because that is clearly a comedy block."

Media buyers point out that the show was based on a best-seller of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, and the book was written from the perspective of a father.

"It's hard for that story line to continue without a father," Schwartz observed.

As to who will become the center of the show, "Katey will take on a bigger role," Braun said. But he stresses that the ensemble cast is really the star of the show.

Asked if he could cite a show that lost its star and continued successfully, Braun said bluntly, "No."

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