- Associated Press - Friday, February 25, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - As Charlie Sheen continued to rant on, his bosses at “Two and a Half Men” seemed prepared Friday to move on. The network’s decision to stop production of television’s most popular sitcom this season _ and maybe for good _ has multimillion-dollar implications for CBS and producer Warner Bros. Television, but it’s hardly fatal.

The remaining four episodes were scrapped Thursday after Sheen called the show’s executive producer Chuck Lorre a “contaminated little maggot.” Sheen’s remarks were made on a radio program and in a letter posted on the TMZ website. He kept it up Friday, calling Lorre a clown and loser in text messages to ABC’s “Good Morning America” and vowing to show up for work next week.

However, there won’t be any work for him to do, as Sheen’s erratic personal life may finally have killed a job that reportedly pays him $1.8 million an episode. He’s been hospitalized three times in three months, with the production put on hold in January after his most recent hospital stay following a night of frenzied partying. Taping was to resume next week, a plan that blew up Thursday.

“There comes a time when you say, `Enough,’” Jeffrey Stepakoff, a veteran television writer and author of “Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing,” said Friday.

The last original episode of “Two and a Half Men” aired Feb. 14.

Sheen plays a hard-partying playboy in the series, which has been a durable performer for CBS for eight seasons. It has averaged 14.6 million viewers this season, down 4 percent from last year, the Nielsen Co. said. The show has fluctuated little in audience, with the 16.5 million viewer average in 2004-05 its highest and 13.8 million in 2007-08 the lowest, Nielsen said.

“It’s very hard to get rid of a show that is successful and popular and has served as a launching pad for other comedies,” said Brad Adgate, a television analyst for Horizon Media. “This is still a hit-driven business and it’s hard to get a hit like that.”

Sheen, in an interview Friday with Pat O’Brien on Fox radio’s “Loose Cannons” show, said he would fight any effort to not pay him for the balance of his contract, which runs through next season.

He questioned whether he would go back for a ninth season or not, calling it a “toxic environment.”

“If they want to roll back to season nine, I gave them my word I would do that but not with the turds that are currently in place. It’s impossible … it would go bad quickly,” he said.

Canceling the show outright would eliminate the anchor series on CBS’ popular Monday night lineup, with its 9 p.m. replacement likely getting lower ratings. However, since “Two and a Half Men” is a long-running hit with a highly paid cast and staff, CBS will almost certainly replace it with a show that’s cheaper to put on, perhaps making up for the lost ad revenue, analysts say.

It’s been widely thought that next season would be its last. It would have brought “Two and a Half Men” up to around 200 episodes in its life span, considered optimal for a long life in syndication. There are 177 episodes now.

Unlike NBC, which is looking to continue “The Office” even though star Steve Carell is leaving after this season, it seems unlikely that CBS or Warners would want to continue the show without Sheen or choose another actor to replace him.

CBS is in a strong position as the top-rated broadcast network. Last week, for example, Fox’s two editions of “American Idol” were the most-watched prime-time shows on television, and the next 16 on the Nielsen Co.’s popularity list were all on CBS.

“CBS, of anybody, can absorb an issue like this, because they have bench strength,” said Don Seamen, vice president and communications analysis for MPG North America. “They have other shows that can fill the slot. If it was NBC, they would be more willing to look the other way.”

Can Lorre look the other way at insulting, even borderline anti-Semitic remarks sent his way by the actor he cast in his series? If “Two and a Half Men” ends, it’s hardly the end for Lorre, already one of the most successful producers in TV whose other shows include the CBS hits “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mike & Molly.”

“Chuck Lorre might just say, `I can’t work with this guy anymore,’ and nobody would blame him,” Seamen said.

Still, stranger things have happened in television.

“I’d like to think anyone could kiss and make up. Laverne and Shirley did,” said Drew Carey, who starred in and co-created “The Drew Carey Show.” He referred to the oft-rumored feud between stars Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams on the hit sitcom that debuted in 1976.

Producers can also bring in someone to replace Sheen, Carey said, acknowledging it’s a risk with viewers.

“I’d put a million bucks on the table that they’re discussing this” and weighing possible replacements for Sheen, said Carey, host of “The Price Is Right” game show.

“Two and a Half Men” already airs in syndication, and has deals locked up with stations that represent roughly 95 percent of the country to keep the reruns on the air through 2020, said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Media.

Sheen’s troubles haven’t hurt the show’s popularity in this market; if anything, the opposite may be true, Carroll said. Two weeks ago, it was the third most popular syndicated show on TV after “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” he said. This season it has been the most popular sitcom in reruns, beating out “Family Guy,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld,” he said.

Syndication is where a producer such as Warner Bros. and others involved in TV shows make their real money. For example, the FX cable network licensed rights to the 177 “Two and a Half Men” episodes for a reported $750,000 each, he said. A less popular show, “Family Guy,” sold rights to its reruns in New York for $68,000 a week _ and that’s just one of more than 200 markets across the country.

Add in the fact that Warners gets to sell some advertising time on the “Two and a Half Men” episodes, and it’s an astronomical amount of revenue with little expense; the shows are already filmed. Warners would take a financial hit if the show ended now, but not until after 2020, Carroll said.

“It’s not inconsequential,” he said. “But it’s not tragic.”

Warners has already prepared for the possibility: even before the latest Sheen episode, it had sent contingency notices to stations that had bought rights to the show for what would happen to their contracts if there’s no ninth season.

CBS said Friday that the show’s slot will be filled with reruns for the time being. It would not be a surprise if CBS airs some of its other comedies in the slot before the season ends, as a test to see how they might do.

“Mike & Molly,” averaging 11.9 million viewers in its freshman season in Monday’s 9:30 p.m. time slot, could be a candidate to move up. Less risky might be the more established “How I Met Your Mother,” although that show is considered near the end of its run.

CBS moved “The Big Bang Theory” from Monday to Thursdays this season and it has done quite well, lessening the likelihood the network would want to move it back.

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Associated Press Television Writer Lynn Elber and AP writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.

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