Regime change for NBC White House series

There won’t be a second term for Aaron Sorkin.

After four years running NBC’s “The West Wing,” the show’s creator and exec producer has elected to leave the Warner Bros. TV-produced White House drama. Exec producer-helmer Thomas Schlamme is also ankling.

Creative and financial differences with the net and studio may have played a role in Sorkin’s decision, but were not likely the determining factor. Both men have at least another year left on their deals with WBTV.

John Wells, who’s also been an exec producer on the show since its start, has agreed to take on an expanded role at the series, essentially serving as showrunner. Execs at NBC and WBTV asked Wells to take the reins when Sorkin and Schlamme informed them of their plans.

Departures at “The West Wing” come a few months after NBC inked a license fee deal with WBTV, agreeing to pay the studio just north of $5.5 million per episode for two more seasons of the show.

It’s also been a particularly tough season for the series, which has seen a dramatic ratings decline in the wake of tough competition from ABC’s “The Bachelor” and Fox’s 9 p.m. Wednesday comedy block, fueled by an “American Idol” lead-in.

With two episodes to go this season, “West Wing” is averaging a 4.5/11 in adults 18-49 and 13.5 million viewers overall — down 27% year-to-year in the demo. It has been placing third in 18-49 most weeks this season after leading its hour most of the previous two seasons.

Critics have also complained the show hasn’t been up to par creatively this season, though recent episodes have won praise.

Small surprise

Sorkin has written virtually all of the 88 episodes of “West Wing” since the skein bowed four years ago, so it’s not a complete surprise he would exit now. And scribe has told interviewers as far back as last summer that this could be his final year on the skein.

“He’s said all he wanted to with this show,” said one Sorkin associate.

Schlamme’s exit also seemed likely considering the helmer’s active development slate, as well as his support of Sorkin’s vision.

But there also have been reports of tension between the Sorkin/Schlamme team and NBC/WBTV.

Studio was said to be frustrated by frequent cost overruns on the show, as well as the scribe’s tardiness in turning in scripts. WBTV even had a meeting with Sorkin to demand tighter fiscal constraints, according to a report last month in Entertainment Weekly.

NBC and WBTV also may have had some creative concerns about the direction of the show, according to several insiders.

For the first three seasons of “West Wing,” Sorkin had free rein to do pretty much whatever he wanted story-wise. Any attempt to dictate storylines probably wouldn’t sit well with him.

In the end, it seems likely no one factor led to Sorkin’s ankling.

Four seasons of writing almost every word of an hourlong drama is a task even the ultra-prolific David E. Kelley wouldn’t attempt. Continuing at that pace for a fifth season may have simply been too much for the scribe.

Likewise, the prospect of a season filled with network and studio notes — after having virtually complete creative freedom in the past — might have made leaving easier.

Sorkin and Schlamme declined interview requests and were upbeat in their official statements regarding their respective exits.

“This has been the experience of any writer’s dreams,” Sorkin said. “I had the best job in show business for four years, and I’ll never forget that. I’m indebted to (the) cast, crew and staff. … If I worked with them all another hundred times, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Schlamme said that during his entire run on the show, he has felt “blessed by my good fortune to have been part of this great journey. I have been constantly inspired by the enormous talent pool of men and women with whom I have shared this experience and am looking forward with confidence to their next chapter of this extraordinary show.”

Praise for creators

WBTV prexy Peter Roth and NBC Entertainment topper Jeff Zucker issued a joint statement Thursday praising Sorkin and Schlamme for “an extraordinary job in their four years at the helm of ‘The West Wing.’”

“Aaron’s brilliant writing and Tommy’s gifted direction and leadership have been the cornerstones of ‘The West Wing’s’ remarkable critical and ratings success,” the statement said. “We thank and applaud Aaron, Tommy and John (Wells) for creating one of the finest shows to ever air on television.”

Wells said the pair are “irreplaceable” and “will be sorely missed.”

“Sadly, we always knew this day would come and have been assembling a talented group of writers, directors and producers to assist in this transition,” Wells added.

As for what’s next for “The West Wing,” some industry observers wonder if NBC will decide to move the show out of its current 10 p.m. Wednesday slot to a more hospitable environment, like Sundays at 10 p.m.

Such a move would boost “Wing” and NBC’s Sunday, but leave the Peacock with just one established skein on the night: “Law & Order.” (It seems unlikely “Ed” will be back on Wednesdays, assuming it returns at all.)

Indeed, even with its lower Nielsen numbers, the aud for “The West Wing” remains the most upscale of all primetime series. NBC has used that fact to snag premium ad rates for the show, making it valuable even at a reduced rating.

And the show remains one of TV’s most celebrated skeins, with numerous Emmys and Golden Globes under its belt, along with prestigious honors such as the Humanitas Award.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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