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‘Rules’ Fate After Ritter Not Yet Clear

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It will be tough to go on without John Ritter, but ABC and “8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter” have got to try.
That’s the feeling in many corners of the programming, creative, advertising and affiliate communities that understand that ABC didn’t just lose a beloved member of its family when Mr. Ritter died last week. ABC lost the universally liked star it had brought back to TV last season to lead the network’s desperately needed turnaround. It lost him on the eve of a new season on which even more is riding.
It was an unimaginable double whammy. “It’s impossible for it not to have an impact,” said Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming, Katz Television Group.
While no decision has been made on the show’s future, the guessing is that ABC and Touchstone TV will try to continue without Mr. Ritter.
ABC canceled last Friday night’s taping of what would have been the fourth episode of “Rules”’ second season, which was scheduled to start Sept. 23
It will not be easy to re-imagine “Rules,” which was the linchpin in the network’s Tuesday night strategy. But the only alternative is to abandon a show that was becoming a franchise until it had to compete with Fox’s wildly successful “American Idol.”
Some suggest that ABC could buy itself some decision-making time by running “Rules” repeats. A high-level executive at another network said that even though “ABC has been running the hell out of repeats all summer,” he would probably keep the 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. block warm with more repeats because Mr. Ritter’s death might buoy viewership.
“His passing is sad and unfortunate, and for ABC it’s really a shame,” a former network programming president said. “They’ve got a strategy for attempting to build Tuesday night and it’s tough to replace the star of a show like that, particularly a show they were hoping was going to grow.”
The awful truth, he said, is that “Whether someone is fired or dies doesn’t make a difference to the audience.”
But for every citation of a “Cheers,” which thrived through numerous cast changes, someone will counter with “Valerie”-turned-“Valerie’s Family”-turned-“The Hogan Family.” After Valerie Harper left “Valerie,” that show was re-envisioned twice. A similar move with “Rules” could prove risky if, for example, audiences are not comfortable with a new stepdad on the show. “Cheers” worked because Ted Danson remained as the defining spirit of the show. In the case of Mr. Ritter, “There is so much sadness around the actor as opposed to the character that … I don’t think the show can ever move beyond that sadness.”
“You can do anything you want [to the premise of the show], but the humor came from John Ritter. He had the punch lines.
John Ritter was the comedian,” said the former network executive. “You have to do a different premise. That’s another show.”
The producer suggested that one option might be for ABC to expand the focus on the teens, perhaps bring in a grandfather and move the show to the TGIF block. “Obviously, they will have to address it sooner or later,” said Andy Donchin, director for national broadcast at Carat USA. “We’ll work it out moving forward. We’re partners with the network and they are partners with us.”
A saddened ABC Affiliate Association Chairman Deb McDermott said, “I just watched it the other night, and I think they’ve done a really good job of developing the mother and the daughters in the show and that there’s strong appeal in them also. It is an important show for the ABC lineup, and our hope is they can continue the success, however they do it.”
A producer who had cast Mr. Ritter in a guest-starring role on a network drama and marveled at what he made out of it, said, “I think it’s almost irrelevant what the premise was. The reason the show was on TV was mostly because of John Ritter. You could just about change anyone else but John Ritter.”