The Troubles With Televising Charlie Sheen

Tuning In: Why 'Today' and 'GMA' Look Like E! and 'Entertainment Tonight'

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Charlie Sheen makes for great TV. He just doesn't necessarily make for great TV journalism.

News purists are no doubt aghast over recent interviews the clearly troubled star of the popular sitcom "Two and a Half Men" has given to both ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today," in which he's given free rein to vent, bully, threaten and predict all kinds of legal, moral, spiritual and financial victory over CBS (the network that airs "Men"), Warner Bros. (the studio that produces it) and showrunner Chuck Lorre. And no wonder: In letting a rambling Mr. Sheen take to the airways, these TV news organizations appear to be sacrificing context for conflagration.

Conflagration makes for better ratings , of course, but that doesn't mean a news organization should ignore the basic elements of a news presentation.

Charlie Sheen interview on
Charlie Sheen interview on Credit: NBC
Thanks to NBC and ABC (we realize we're ignoring Howard Stern and CNN's Piers Morgan and any number of other outlets, but -- let's be honest -- their talks with Mr. Sheen have a sad, "me too" feel to them, no?), TV viewers are already thisclose to overdosing on Mr. Sheen, who has become as popular for his drug-and-alcohol-fueled binges ("epic behavior," he called it during one network sit-down) as he is for appearing on "Two and a Half Men." NBC, now owned by Comcast, has seen its footage of Mr. Sheen travel to sibling operations at MSNBC and E!, where correspondent Jeff Rossen has popped up to discuss his interview with the addled celebrity on "Morning Joe" and "E! News Tonight." Meanwhile, ABC saw fit to promote its early belief that it had an exclusive talk with Mr. Sheen during its broadcast of the Oscars.

Anyone can pepper a celebrity with questions and let them huff and puff. A reporter, however, would strive for added context. Mr. Sheen said he intends to sue CBS and Warner Bros., and also indicated he'd want a raise in pay to return to the sitcom. Is any of this credible? Do knowledgeable attorneys think he's got a leg to stand on? Are big media companies vulnerable to this sort of attack, or are there things typically built into contracts that make Mr. Sheen's rantings a lot of hot air?

A little follow-up would be nice
A reporter also ought to call out a subject when the things he says seem even just this side of shaky. Sure, ABC's Andrea Canning pressed Mr. Sheen on whether he had drugs in the house, but do we expect his answer to be taken at face value? How refreshing it might be for a reporter to ask him more about his "Sober Valley Lodge" process -- who helped him kick drugs this time? -- or who his attorney is, or what success rate that lawyer has had in dealing with the networks. Perhaps most obvious, why isn't anyone asking Charlie Sheen the biggest question of all: Why couldn't he do his rehab time, zip his lip and then get back to the business of pulling in more than a whopping $2 million an episode on what is arguably the sitcom mainstay of modern TV (sorry, "Modern Family")?

As eager as Mr. Sheen has been to portray himself as wronged, I defy you to find any other employee who is paid millions of dollars to crack one-liners in 20-odd TV episodes while his employers turn deaf ears and blind eyes to constant tabloid reports about partying with porn stars, destroying hotel rooms and creating general mayhem. If any of us regular Joes had a job that allowed us to drink and party to our heart's content, I suspect we'd keep our mouths shut and finish out our contracts.

It's fun to interview celebrities and even more fun to imagine that what they say is somehow more truthful or revealing than the comments of hidebound media corporations with a vested interest in narrowing the flow of information. Yet celebrities are just as biased, self-promotional and restrictive as any CBS or Time Warner.

Journalism catching up?
The news business may now be belatedly bringing a more sophisticated view. This morning on "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos asked a lawyer whether Mr. Sheen has a case against CBS. Answer: It depends on the wording in his contract. Mr. Stephanopoulos also asked a drug counselor whether Mr. Sheen is kidding himself about sobriety. Answer: Yes, he needs psychiatric help. And MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski boldly told her "Morning Joe" colleagues this morning that the whole Sheen eruption bordered on the ridiculous, and -- overstepping her bounds, perhaps -- sided with CBS CEO Les Moonves in the matter.

We're not sure TV newscasters should go that far, but we do know this: In a business allegedly marked by boozy skepticism, TV journalists ought to be as gimlet-eyed as Ms. Brzezinski.

They ought to do more due diligence. And they ought to add context to their video accounts with a couple of quick phone calls to knowledgeable experts or the corporations involved. If you're wondering why telling "Today" and "Good Morning America" apart from TMZ and "E! News" has gotten so difficult, it's because those two staid, respected broadcast-news programs seem to have the same foam-at-the-mouth quality as their less-credible cable counterparts.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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