CBS to evaluate ‘Men’ options

Show could go on without Sheen

The abrupt shutdown of “Two and a Half Men” after star Charlie Sheen checked into rehab will be felt first and foremost on the Warner Bros. and CBS lots.

For CBS, the first question is what to do after the two episodes in the can have aired. To date, 16 episodes have been shot this season; 14 have already aired. The Eye consistently wins the Monday night ratings race with “Two and a Half Men,” the evening’s top entertainment program in the 18-49 demo.

Fortunately for CBS, “Men” is a resilient player in repeats. This season, the show is averaging 14.7 million viewers each week, and 11.5 million turned in to last Monday’s repeat episode. That rerun number is more than most broadcast shows do with original episodes.

The network doesn’t want to look stagnant and indecisive, however. Depending on how long the show is shut down, CBS could move its newest sitcom, “Mad Love” — recently pushed up a week and scheduled to premiere at 8:30 on Feb. 14 — into “Men’s” 9 p.m. slot and air repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” at 8:30 p.m. as a strong lead-in.

It’s impossible to know how long Sheen will be away from the show. When he did his last stint in rehab early in 2010, the show was shuttered for three weeks but managed to complete its 22-episode order.

CBS may not be as fortunate this time around. And even if he does return in time to produce the bulk of this season’s planned 24 episodes, the net may have a PR problem. The sitcom star’s partying ways have long been fodder for such celebrity gossip sites as Time Warner-owned TMZ, which over the weekend reported that Sheen gave a $30,000 check made out to “cash” to a porn actress (the site had an image of the canceled check as proof).

For years, Sheen’s offscreen antics only reinforced his onscreen persona as “Men’s” lusty, fun-loving Charlie Harper. But with the deluge of tabloid headlines about porn stars, profligate spending and drug use, there may well be a viewer backlash, particularly among women (who make up a big chunk of the show’s aud) and especially as many Americans are still fighting their way out of the recession.

If Sheen does a lengthy stay in rehab, CBS brass may push to do at least a few segs without him. Certainly, CBS and WBTV have been considering their options for weeks, as it became apparent that Sheen was on a downward spiral that seemed to accelerate during the show’s hiatus over the holidays.

It’s understood that pressure from CBS, Warners and “Men” topper Chuck Lorre contributed to Sheen’s latest trip to a rehab facility. That decision, announced midday on Friday, followed last week’s headline-generating period of partying and Sheen’s daylong stay in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Thursday for what were described as severe abdominal pains.

The conundrum for the net and studio with Sheen, the highest-paid actor on TV today, has been that he generally does his job well during periods when the show is in production, as CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler told journos earlier this month at the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

But when “Men” is on regularly skedded hiatuses, as it was last week, Sheen’s well-documented affinity for hard partying has raised concerns that he could become a liability for the studio, i.e., if an accident occurred on set.

Moreover, Sheen may return to resentment on the “Men” stage should production be halted for weeks or months. WBTV offered no comment on whether below-the-line crew members would be paid during the unplanned hiatus.

Despite Sheen’s ups and downs, “Men” has thrived as a cash cow for its key players. Show has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for Warner Bros. (and plenty of coin for Sheen as a profit participant) since it bowed in off-network syndication in 2007.

FX began airing reruns of the sitcom on weeknights in September to strong results. After debuting in the fall to 700,000 viewers in the 18-49 demo, the episodes now bring in some 1 million viewers for FX. On Thursdays, “Men” has provided a vital lead-in to FX’s original comedies, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Archer.”

“It’s phenomenal and sets up our night,” said FX exec VP Chuck Saftler. “It improves the chances to promote our movie and original program. From the standpoint of giving us a launching platform, it’s exceptional.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)