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ABC to Continue Show After Loss of John Ritter

The network says it will resume production of '8 Simple Rules' despite the death of its star.

September 17, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Executives at ABC said Tuesday they would hew to an old show business rule: The show must go on.

The network decided that its prime-time comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," would resume production, despite the unexpected death Thursday of its star, John Ritter. The program will stay in its regular Tuesday slot at 8 p.m. and incorporate the loss of his character into the story line.

It's a risky move for ABC, in that it probably will require a shift from broad comedy, which played off Ritter's knack for physical humor, to a sadder, more heartwarming tone.

"8 Simple Rules" was a modest hit last season for Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC but is one of the most important shows for the ailing network as it struggles to reverse its declining ratings and advertising revenue. The show will launch its second season as scheduled next week with the first of three episodes Ritter filmed before he died of an undetected heart flaw. That episode, as well as the next two, will feature a special introduction by cast members paying tribute to the actor, who played the harried father of three teenagers.

Reruns from the show's first season will run in the time period for an undetermined number of weeks. When the series returns with original episodes, Ritter's character will have died, and the Hennessys, his TV family, will be dealing with his loss while trying to build a new life.

"After much introspection and discussion, we are moving forward," said Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, during a conference call with reporters.

"8 Simple Rules" represents the cornerstone of ABC's business strategy to regain past ratings glory and profitability by serving up family comedies. Top advertisers -- many of whom have steered clear of harder-edged dramas or so-called reality shows because they don't want their products associated with racy themes -- have pressed the networks to produce more wholesome shows.

ABC's "8 Simple Rules" fit that bill.

Last month, a coalition of advertisers anointed "8 Simple Rules" the year's best comedy during the Family Television Awards program, part of a lobbying effort by advertisers for more family fare.

"The show has been such a strong one for ABC -- advertisers like it a lot," said Bill Cella, chairman of Magna Global USA, one of the largest advertising buying agencies. "It's good TV, and it has an advantage of appealing to different age groups, which is really nice."

Advertisers that already have bought commercial time during the show will stick around, Cella predicted. If ratings don't meet guarantees promised by the network when the commercial time was sold in May, then advertisers will receive "make-goods," or free commercial time during other shows, to compensate.

Some ad buyers say the show may experience a ratings boost from curious viewers.

Executives for ABC and Disney-owned Touchstone Television, the producers of the series, had discussed several options, including canceling the series or replacing Ritter with another actor. Industry insiders said several performers, including Howie Mandel and David Spade, had been approached in recent days about their availability.

Braun acknowledged that the unusual blurring of fiction and real life "will make it a different show. We discussed every option, but ultimately dismissed the notion of recasting John. He's irreplaceable. So it will be a different show, a show that will be telling a very important story. This hits real families. It hit the Ritter family. And we will deal with those issues head-on."

Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, added: "We will have an opportunity for people to get to know the Hennessy family in a very unusual way, in a way that television rarely does. We will let viewers in on the journey this family will take."

Lyne said new characters will be introduced into the series over time, but "we have no intention of bringing a dad back into this family at any point in the near future."

Katey Sagal, who played Ritter's wife, is expected to take on a greater role in the show, the executives said. The sitcom also stars Kaley Cuoco, Amy Davidson and Martin Spanjers as the Hennessy children.

Judging by history, ABC will have a formidable challenge in continuing with the show, because series customarily have struggled after a main star dies.

In October 1991, just a month into the season, comedian Redd Foxx suffered a heart attack while rehearsing on the set of CBS' "The Royal Family," in which he co-starred with Della Reese. His death was written into the show, but it was off the air the next month. It came back briefly the next season.

NBC said it would stick with its Tuesday competitor, "Whoopi," at 8 p.m., despite what could be a strong showing for ABC's "8 Simple Rules" because of the curiosity factor. "We're just going to have to weather the storm," spokeswoman Rebecca Marks said.

CBS and Fox will continue with their planned airings of, respectively, the drama "NCIS" and the reality show "Joe Millionaire."

The decision to continue the series has the blessing of Ritter's wife, actress Amy Yasbeck. "John always dealt with anything that life threw at him with humor," Yasbeck said. "He believed in this show and its message that a strong family can get through anything."

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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