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Charlie Sheen too valuable to let go — for now

The star of ratings powerhouse 'Two and a Half Men' makes so much money for CBS that the network is willing to forgive his myriad legal and personal transgressions. But as one industry insider notes, there is a tipping point.

January 31, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Charlie Sheen, star of CBS' "Two and Half Men," is back in rehab.
Actor Charlie Sheen, star of CBS' "Two and Half Men," is… (Chris Pizzello / Associated…)

Conventional wisdom holds that in a time of budget rollbacks and a glut of media, Hollywood's A-list talent pool is operating with diminished clout. But the strange case of Charlie Sheen shows how the travails of a big star can still shake entertainment conglomerates.

Sheen, the long-troubled star of "Two and a Half Men," checked himself into rehab again Friday, freezing production on TV's most-watched sitcom for the second year in a row. That's left CBS and Warner Bros., the studio that makes the show, scrambling to rejigger schedules and shield an asset whose ultimate value will ultimately top $1 billion.

In the short term, CBS is racing to shore up its No. 1-ranked prime-time lineup, where "Two and a Half Men" has been the longtime anchor of its Monday comedy block. The network was already set to air a repeat Monday night and has two fresh episodes that have already been filmed and are due to run Feb. 7 and Feb. 14. After that, the network is likely to rely on relatively low-rated repeats and, depending on Sheen's availability, order additional episodes of other comedies such as "How I Met Your Mother" and "Rules of Engagement" as a stopgap.

The long-term picture, however, is much murkier, given Sheen's history of relapse. His employers — as well as Sheen's father, "West Wing" star Martin Sheen, and other family members — are believed to have pressured the hard-partying actor to reenter rehab after he was hospitalized late last week with severe abdominal pains. But on Friday, just as his publicist was e-mailing reporters to say his client was entering rehab and wanted privacy, Sheen texted the celebrity website RadarOnline.com to say he was "fine" and that "people just don't seem to get it."

" 'Two and a Half Men' could easily be called 'The Charlie Sheen Show,' " said Brad Adgate, a programming analyst at ad firm Horizon Media in New York. "They cannot produce a show without him or bring in another actor to replace him. I think there would be a significant loss of viewers if either of those happened."

CBS spokesman Chris Ender told The Times in a statement: "The most important thing right now is that Charlie is seeking help. Any immediate programming or financial implications pale in comparison to his long-term health, safety and well-being.

"Looking forward, the financial impact of the shutdown is not material to CBS," Ender added. "Any ratings declines will be more than offset by the reduced programming costs for episodes lost this season."

Money is at the center of the Sheen drama. The immense value of "Two and a Half Men" helps explain why network and studio executives are cutting Sheen a much wider berth than they probably would for the typical wayward celebrity, despite his unsavory headlines and checkered past.

But from the perspective of the entertainment industry, Sheen is not just another celebrity with a tabloid-friendly substance-abuse problem; he's an indispensable component of that exceedingly rare type of TV smash, one so profitable it ends up funding years of overhead and often-fruitless program development. That is what has made him among the highest-paid actors in history, with a paycheck estimated at nearly $2 million per episode.

Co-created by Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, the often raunchy comedy, which premiered in 2003 and costars Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones as a father and son trying to adjust to life with freewheeling bachelor Charlie Harper (Sheen), will bring in more than $600 million in syndication revenue over the next few years for Warner Bros. Television. And while CBS pays a steep $4 million per episode, the network still makes a tidy profit from ad revenue — an estimated $155 million in the 2009-10 season alone, according to Kantar Media.

Indeed, the web of companies in the Sheen business spreads wide: Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, has a lucrative deal to run "Two and a Half Men" repeats on 19 stations through 2021. Sinclair Broadcast Group, perhaps best known nationwide for ordering its affiliates to run a documentary critical of Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, runs the show on 21 stations.

If "Two and a Half Men" endures a lengthy break, CBS will get an unwanted complication in its efforts to remain atop the network heap. And given that each episode is worth roughly $3 million in syndication, Warner Bros. loses another revenue stream every time Sheen can't show up for work. The actor's three-week rehab stint last year meant that Warner Bros. last season could deliver only 22 episodes rather than the usual 24. Also, the studio may incur additional costs if it chooses to keep paying the salaries of other cast and crew members during the hiatus. A studio spokesman would not comment on the issue Sunday.

"The question is, how much longer are Warner Bros., Chuck Lorre and CBS going to tolerate his off-screen behavior, and what happens if this rehab stint does not pan out," Adgate said. "Eventually everybody runs out of patience."

scott.collins@latimes.com

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