NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- What's "Two and a Half Men" minus Charlie Sheen? If you think a sitcom is worth little to audiences and advertisers without its top-billed star, the answer could be zero.
But, in reality, if Mr. Sheen, who has gone into rehab, is back within a couple weeks, the damage to CBS and its advertisers will be minimal to nil.
CBS, Warner Brothers and show creator Chuck Lorre raised eyebrows late Tuesday by announcing that production on the top-rated program would be "temporarily suspended" due to Mr. Sheen's "decision today to begin voluntary in-patient care at a treatment center." Mr. Sheen has been in the headlines recently after police were called to mediate a dispute between the star and his wife during Christmas. Earlier this month, Mr. Sheen was charged with a felony relating to that incident.
Popular and pricey show
The network and the show's producers certainly have some cause for concern. "Two and a Half Men" is one of the most popular -- and most pricey -- programs on TV for advertisers. The average cost of a 30-second ad in the show is $226,335, according to Ad Age's annual survey of ad prices for prime-time broadcast programming. That price is only behind NBC's "Sunday Night Football" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."
And its last original episode, which aired the week ending Feb. 14, notched nearly 17.7 million live-plus-same-day viewers, according to Nielsen. Only Fox's "American Idol," NBC's Olympics coverage and CBS's own "NCIS" dramas got more viewers that whole week.
At a time of general audience erosion for broadcast television, Mr. Sheen's troubles are more concerning for CBS than for any individual advertiser. "What happens if it doesn't go back on and they can't do the show?" said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at independent agency Richards Group.
"That's one of the highest-indexing shows on CBS," said Larry Novenstern, exec VP-director of national and local broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia. "If we end up losing it, there would definitely have to be a conversation."
That conversation could include the prospect that advertisers that had counted on big ratings for "Two and a Half Men" might seek to reallocate their advertising on the network or, down the road, look for make-goods -- additional commercial time to keep them level with previous ratings guarantees. Advertisers would be made whole in that case, but CBS would likely be loath to give up inventory for make-goods when it is having such success getting high prices selling spots in the current "scatter" market.
But for most advertisers that have some small percentage of their television budget committed to "Men," a brief ratings hit to the show would have a fairly limited impact, according to Mr. Berger.
CBS also has some breathing room. Eighteen episodes of "Two and a Half Men" have already been taped, a CBS spokesman said, and 15 have aired. The network had ordered 24 episodes of the program; a typical season-length order for a network show is 22 episodes.
And if Mr. Sheen were to come back within a few weeks, the network could simply truncate the order and still meet advertisers' expectations. Even if Mr. Sheen's troubles grow more protracted, CBS could take one of its other Monday comedies -- "The Big Bang Theory" has shown solid growth over two seasons -- and make that the anchor at 9 p.m. rather than "Men," and place "Men" repeats elsewhere on that evening's schedule. A repeat of "Men" that aired the week ending Feb. 21 brought in approximately 10.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen, though the week included Winter Olympics on NBC.
No matter what the result, Mr. Sheen's image appears to be suffering. "Marketers should stay away from Charlie Sheen in the near future," said David Schwab, VP-managing director of Octagon First Call, a celebrity-marketing consultancy owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. "It was always fun to play on his bad-boy image, but it crosses the line when it becomes a domestic issue."
"As for Warner Bros./CBS, it is smart for them to stay quiet and ultimately tape and air the episodes once he is back from rehab," he added.