Happy Viewers Aren't the Reason 'Two and a Half Men' Could Return

Tuning In: Old Show, New Actor? This TV Tactic Is a Rerun

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'News Radio' continued for one season after Phil Hartman.
'News Radio' continued for one season after Phil Hartman.

Will fans thrill to seeing the one-and-a-half remaining principals on a revamped "Two and a Half Men" on CBS this fall? Let's just say they're probably not begging CBS to make it happen. Couch-potato demand isn't the primary reason this show might return.

Show producer Warner Bros. "is exploring different ideas on how to do the show, so we are sort of waiting on them," said CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves during an investor call Tuesday, confirming recent reports that "Men" showrunner Chuck Lorre is devising new scenarios -- including a new lead actor -- that might make sense for a new season.

But people who liked the show before ought to keep this in mind: CBS and Time Warner may be less interested in putting on a program that makes sense for viewers than they are in manging content in a way that makes financial sense for themselves.

Because antics from former show lead Charlie Sheen forced the shutdown of this season of "Men" -- which had been slated to run through 2012 under a recent contract -- CBS has lost out on ad revenue while Time Warner has had to say farewell to valuable dollars it might have received from future episodes going into syndication.

Bringing "Men" back for one more season with many of the show's original characters and some fascinating new twist could, if many different ingredients come together properly, be an economic success -- even if it doesn't prove to be an entertaining one.

Advertisers may prefer to see a show that 's a shadow of itself but still a reliable performer over something completely new and untested, especially in today's market and its splintered viewership. "Meltdown-sullied sitcoms have survived the loss of their headline star before and this should be no exception," Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas's MPG, told me when I asked him about this back in March. "Most have come late in their network lifespans anyway, so the fallout comes when there's less of a future for the series, regardless. This is probably a continuation of that dynamic."

CBS's "ability to grab and hold the audience bubble that 's more than likely going to come with that first non-Sheen 'Two and a Half Men' will be critical to determine if this is 'Two and a Half Men 2.0' or the next generation of 'AfterMASH,'" he said.

Indeed, the TV airwaves have been littered with attempts to keep a program on the air once one of its principals has departed, often with mixed success. When comedian Phil Hartman was killed in 1998, NBC opted to continue making "NewsRadio" with former "Saturday Night Live" colleague Jon Lovitz instead. When Valerie Harper, the star of NBC's "Valerie" walked off the show after two seasons, the network continued the program by subbing Sandy Duncan and retitling the program "The Hogan Family." The show lasted until 1991, and even ran on CBS for a brief time. NBC at present is trying to determine if "The Office" without star Steve Carrell is still as productive a workplace.

Keeping a show going by subbing in one member of an ensemble cast (think "Cheers") is one thing; it's quite another, however, when a particular character dominates the program. Either way, TV networks have pushed forward even under the most tragic of circumstances, as anyone realized if they watched ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" after lead actor John Ritter suddenly passed away in 2003. The show was retooled with co-star Katey Sagal and dressed up with the additions of David Spade and James Garner (and the program's title was shortened to "8 Simple Rules").

Why do TV networks do this? The simple answer, as you might guess, is that their money is showing.

Even after hit TV series mature and start to lose audience, eroding a network's ability to command top ad rates, millions still beckon from the sale of the program in syndication, on DVD and through other platforms. Keeping the program alive not only adds more content that can be sold to others but serves as a promotional trumpet for the show as after-market sales talks commence.

TV series also often lose money in their first few seasons. Not until a network and studio have built up a substantial back library of episodes can they sell the program overseas and into syndication to make back the money they have already invested. So CBS and Time Warner have plenty of reasons to keep "Men" on the air for just a little while longer, if only to better recoup Mr. Sheen's reportedly astronomical per-episode salary, even if the retooled premise seems thin.

Keeping "Men" upright may matter more to Warner Bros. parent Time Warner than it does to CBS. "We aren't too dependent on a single show on any single night of the week," Mr. Moonves said today. Time Warner , recently slimmed down by divestitures of AOL and Time Warner Cable, is more reliant on every piece of content it produces to carry its weight.

But the two companies work together well, whether managing their jointly-owned CW network or getting together occasionally to talk about combining of CBS News and CNN. One can imagine the two corporations buddying up to keep a series that has commanded top ad rates on the boob-tube for at least another 13 episodes, if not a full-season order of 22 .

They won't be out to win Emmys or please TV Guide; they will simply be looking to fill their own coffers.

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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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