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What Should CBS Do About Charlie Sheen? We Survey the Industry

Sure, Hollywood may be a town filled with folks who feed on others misfortunes. But when it comes to Charlie Sheen, the word that seems to best describe the mood of industry insiders is actually “empathy” — for Sheen, surely, but also for execs at CBS and Warner Bros. TV, who’ve found themselves stuck in a crisis with tremendous potential for disaster and few easy solutions. As Sheen’s real-time E! True Hollywood Story continues to unfold, Vulture decided to survey agents, producers, and network types to get their take on what’s happened so far — and how they’d handle things going forward.

We first rang up industry icon Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), and it turns out he actually has had experience dealing with addiction-addled actors. Thirty years ago, when Hill Street Blues was a struggling drama on NBC, Bochco worried that actor Keil Martin — who played Detective J.D. La Rue — was spiraling out of control because of his struggles with alcoholism. “We had to say to him, ‘You’re going into rehab or you’ll never work again,’” Bochco says. “And remarkably, it worked. He never had another drink again.” (Martin passed away in 1990 of cancer.) Bochco concedes, however, that he had a much less difficult dilemma on his hands: “Our show was an ensemble, so [Martin] knew we could replace him,” he says. What’s more, because Hill Street was never a monster hit, the financial stakes for the network and production studio weren’t nearly as high as they are in the Sheen situation.

Still, Bochco says the crux of the matter remains the same: “You can’t force somebody into sobriety,” he notes. “People have to reach a point where they’re at their own personal bottom and they want the recovery.” Which is exactly why some critics have been arguing that, by keeping Sheen fully employed, the network and studio are allowing Sheen to continue his behavior without consequences. “It can start to look like CBS [and Warners are] enabling him,” one senior level PR maven says.

Such tsk-tsking falls apart when you consider Sheen’s on-set track record, however. “He always comes to work. He always makes his call times,” one person sympathetic to the companies’ point of view notes. “The problem comes when the show’s dark.” As another insider notes, Sheen has an ironclad contract and an army of lawyers ready to pounce if Sheen feels dissed: “It’s so incredibly complicated. They just can’t fire him.” But CBS and Warners clearly aren’t just sitting back doing nothing, either. Behind the scenes, according to reports, they were key in pushing him to seek treatment last week. “They did what they needed to do,” one top agent without any connection to Sheen told us, adding that the Eye has a track record for getting tough with talent when needed. Back in 2004, he notes, the network essentially fired George Eads and Jorja Fox from CSI when their salary demands were deemed out of line; the duo quickly made a deal to return. Clearly, CBS can’t be as mercenary with Sheen, one of the highest-paid actors on TV and the face of his show: That’s why the network and its studio partner have been carefully waltzing with Sheen and his reps for months now, alternating between public statements of support and private demands that he get help for his addictions.

So what happens now? Per TMZ, Sheen might be in rehab for up to three months, making it unlikely he’d be able to appear in more than one or two new episodes after Men airs its last scheduled original on February 14. There’s been media speculation that CBS and Warners might try to line up guest stars to sub for Sheen this season, but Vulture hears that such a scenario is highly unlikely. Exec producer Chuck Lorre doesn’t think such a plan makes sense, since all Men aren’t created equal: The heart of his show is the shenanigans of Sheen’s Charlie Harper. In addition, as one agent tells us, “Bringing someone in to basically replace Charlie or even writing around the character would be like a giant ‘fuck you’ to him” at a time when Sheen’s ego is understandably being crushed by the flood of negative reports about his behavior. CBS might have wanted the CSI crew to think they were dispensable, but with Sheen, the opposite seems true: The goal seems to be to convince the actor that he’s beloved and wanted, and needs to get better.

As for the long-term future, CBS and Warner insiders insist they aren’t thinking beyond May — and while that might sound like spin, we actually believe they’ve adopted the twelve-step mantra that dictates you accept the things you can’t control. While a shortened Men season might force a little schedule rejiggering, such a scenario isn’t a big deal to CBS (the No. 1 network) or Warners (Men will continue to be an ATM to the studio for years, thanks to profits from syndicated repeats). Industry insiders say the companies are right to not stress any temporary pain: “Who cares about eight episodes now when you’re talking about possibly losing a whole season next year [if Sheen doesn’t get better],” one agent says. And yet, media reports focusing on how much money CBS might lose miss the point, since even the worst-case scenario — Men never produces another half-hour — would ultimately be just a hiccup for the Eye. The network, after all, just closed a three-year deal for the equally hot The Big Bang Theory; it has a solid Monday-night anchor in How I Met Your Mother, which could easily last two more seasons; and the Lorre-produced Mike and Molly is having a promising freshman season. Also, while Men is super-successful, it’s also damn expensive at this point. Its demise could actually end up being financially insignifcant to the Eye’s bottom line, since whatever replaced it would be far less costly (NBC’s bottom line benefited when Friends and Seinfeld exited at the top of their respective gains). Warners wouldn’t be as lucky, since they wouldn’t be getting the syndication revenue that they’d planned on for the next batch of episodes. But its status as TV’s No. 1 studio, as well the insulation provided from being part of a giant conglomerate such as Time Warner, means there won’t be catastrophic consequences if Men implodes.

All these caveats aside, there’s still a reason why the Sheen soap opera resonates. Clear away all the noise about ratings and profits, as well as the TMZ-powered reporting about porn stars and cocaine briefcases, and what remains is this: One of TV’s biggest stars, a fixture on the pop-culture landscape for at least two decades, is teetering, his fate uncertain. The cynical may interpret CBS and Warners’ actions as nothing more than giant corporations trying to protect their investments, but the more accurate (if less snarky) take is that the players involved may simply be trying to save the life of a longtime co-worker or friend. Bochco echoes the feelings of many insiders who’ve got their fingers crossed that things turn out well. “I don’t think turning your back on him, either personally or professionally, is going to help,” he says. “I have no personal knowledge of the man, but you’ve got to hold out hope for that guy. Nobody wants to see him fall. Nobody wants to see him die.”

What Should CBS Do About Charlie Sheen? We Survey the Industry