to kutch or not to kutch

God Has Nothing to Do With Two and a Half Men’s Uncertain Future

Photo: DARREN MICHAELS/Warner Bros

Angus T. Jones is now telling fans of Two and a Half Men to stop watching the evil TV show that’s made him a millionaire many times over. Another crisis in Chuck Lorre Town? Not really. Having successfully survived the messy exit of former star Charlie Sheen, it’s easy to imagine Lorre and his fellow producers somehow soldiering on sans Jones if Jesus (or Kirk Cameron) were to tell the young actor to leave the show when his contract expires in May. The bigger question is whether CBS actually wants another season of Men — once its biggest, most dependable hit — and can the network afford to bring it back? Let’s break down the internal pros-and-cons debate likely to be going through the heads of Eye execs over the next few months.

Of course CBS wants more episodes! Even after a decade, Men remains one of the biggest comedies on TV.
Through early November, the show was still pulling in nearly 15 million viewers per episode (twice the audience of New Girl and nearly as many as the 17 million who watch megahit Modern Family), and it regularly does better among adults under 50 than younger CBS comedies such as How I Met Your Mother and Mike and Molly. Comedy hits are hard to come by these days, as the low numbers for Ben & Kate, Don’t Trust the B—-, The Mindy Project, and the canceled Animal Practice and Partners demonstrate. You don’t just throw away that many eyeballs lightly.

But … one of the reasons Men is doing so well is because it airs behind the red-hot The Big Bang Theory. And that’s really valuable prime-time real estate that might better serve another comedy.
CBS schedulers wisely moved Men from its longtime Monday perch this fall, relocating it behind BBT, which is on track to outdraw Modern Family as TV’s most-watched comedy this season. That’s helped slow the very noticeable ratings erosion Men suffered earlier this year when it still aired on Mondays (it dropped below 11 million viewers in overnight ratings some weeks last spring), and it is a significant reason why the sitcom remains so strong in its tenth season. While airing Men on Thursdays made sense this year — CBS needed to keep the 8:30 p.m. slot strong in order to boost the crucial sophomore season of 9 p.m. drama Person of Interest — Eye execs know that, longer term, the post-BBT slot would be put to better use if filled by a younger comedy. BBT’s huge lead-in could help create another new hit that could last another ten years. Yes, moving Men back to Mondays would likely result in a sharp Nielsen dive, and that leads to the biggest reason why this could be the show’s last season …

Men is a very, very expensive comedy.
We don’t know exactly how much CBS is paying producer Warner Bros. TV for the show, but industry insiders — and common sense — suggest it’s easily one of the costliest half-hours on TV. Deadline reported in May that Kutcher would pull about $700,000 per episode, with Jon Cryer making “a bit less” and the passively resistant Jones $300,000 per episode. That’s $1.5 million per episode in topline talent costs alone; add in all the other costs associated with a show, from writers to gaffers to Lorre’s own massive per-episode fee, and it’s not hard to imagine each episode costing CBS two to three times the price tag of a brand-new show. A newer series would likely generate lower ratings and thus fewer ad dollars, but it’s also likely that a newbie would actually make more money for CBS than Men, since it would cost far less. This is exactly why NBC’s prime-time profit margin went up after the ridiculously expensive Friends and ER left the air. (Oh, and you can leave syndication money out of the equation: That golden goose belongs to the folks at Warner Bros. TV). 

But … CBS needs all the comedy help it can get.  
It’s easy to say that the post-BBT slot will launch a new comedy, but it’s something else to actually make a new comedy that works. CBS will emerge from this season having launched no new sitcoms: Partners was canceled and industry insiders say the Groupon-set Friend Me may never make it to air following the sad death of co-creator Alan Kirschenbaum. More troubling, last year’s big hit, 2 Broke Girls, has seen its ratings fall versus last season; it’s still a hit, but it has not become the massive phenom Eye execs had prayed for, at least not yet. And then there’s How I Met Your Mother: CBS wants the show to return for the 2013–14 TV season (its ninth), but the cast have yet to strike new deals. Odds are such agreements will be signed, but if HIMYM somehow doesn’t return, CBS will almost certainly need to keep Men alive at any cost.

Bottom line: Two and a Half Men is a known unknown.
With apologies to Donald Rumsfield, “known unknown” is the best way to characterize the current status of Men. Headed into the fall, most industry insiders were pretty certain season ten would be the show’s last, if only because its high cost and good-but-not-blockbuster Monday ratings suggested it was getting too expensive for prime time. But as noted above, CBS’s comedy troubles this season — as well as the tough time most newer sitcoms are having this fall —  might mean the network will want to squeeze yet one more year out of Men. Ironically, Jones’s new self-loathing over his Men role could actually end up contributing to the show’s continued life. If he departed, he’d save producers (and CBS) more than $6 million in talent costs, making the show at least a little more affordable. The Lord works in mysterious ways, y’all!

God Is Not Two and a Half Men’s Problem