ABC will go ahead with Tuesday's second-season debut of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and will air all three episodes that had been shot before lead actor John Ritter died unexpectedly last week.
ABC suits announced yesterday that the series will continue and will follow the sitcom's Hennessy family members as they cope with the death of their father.
"We don't pretend to know exactly where this will take us; we will take episodes one at a time," ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne told TV critics during a telephone news conference late yesterday afternoon.
Ritter, who made his TV sitcom comeback on "8 Simple Rules" last season, 25 years after becoming a star on ABC with "Three's Company," collapsed while working on the fourth episode; he died soon after of a previously undetected heart defect.
With the new TV season a week away, ABC execs had "little choice but to dive in and make the decision" whether to continue the series without Ritter, said ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun, also on the conference call.
Their first thought was to cancel the show, Lyne said. "That was our initial instinct, because John is clearly irreplaceable; he was such a powerful force in our company, and certainly on that show, that our first instinct was that we should retire it."
But after talking to other cast members and producers, as well as Ritter's wife, actress Amy Yasbeck, the ABC suits said, they decided to try to keep the show going. They did, however, quickly dismiss the idea of recasting Ritter's role.
"It didn't feel right on any level," Braun said, adding, "We know that this will make it a different show."
After showing the three episodes already in the can, ABC will air reruns from the first season for a period yet to be determined. Those episodes will get some special packaging, but the execs said details have not been worked out. When original episodes resume, they will start with one in which the writers address the death of Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy. It has not been decided whether the death will mirror what happened to Ritter, the ABC execs said.
Lyne said they see this as "an opportunity to do something that would break out . . . to deal honestly and truthfully with something that everybody deals with at some point in their lives."
"We can't lay out for you right now exactly how long we'll be dealing with death and loss" on the show, she told reporters.
"It may be several episodes; it may be longer. . . . Certainly the first episode and several after that will be more dramatic and more emotional than you expect" from a sitcom.
Odds of a series surviving the death of its star actor are slim. NBC recast Freddie Prinze's role after he committed suicide in 1977 during the third season of "Chico and the Man"; the show was canceled in a year. CBS tried to bring back Redd Foxx's comeback series, "The Royal Family," six months after his death but scrapped the idea after just a few episodes.
On the other hand, Disney, which owns both ABC and "8 Simple Rules" production house Touchstone, already has invested in a year's worth of episodes on the series.
For a series to become a viable product for syndication, a studio must amass several seasons' worth of episodes. Stephen McPherson, president of Touchstone Television, told critics yesterday that if the retooled show survives, the episodes with Ritter would be pooled with all future episodes for syndication purposes.
Fox, the network that targets hip young viewers, has decided instead to target angry old white men to kick off its 2003-04 TV season.
So rather than air the next episode of its latest singing competition series, "Performing As . . ." at 8 p.m. on Monday, Fox will run an interview with President Bush from the White House by Fox News Channel chief Washington correspondent Brit Hume.
How -- I know you're wondering -- do Fox suits get from a place where they think that a show in which groupies imitate Cher, Britney, Barbra and Faith is the best way to counterprogram the season debut of NBC's "Fear Factor," featuring contestants who battle for a $1 million prize by holding their breath in a flooded coffin filled with thousands of blood-sucking leeches, to a place where they think the best way to counter those blood-sucking leeches is George W. Bush discussing his administration's efforts to obtain a new U.N. resolution on Iraq and the current "situation" in the Middle East with one of the Fair-and-Balanced Boys of FNC?
Did I just answer my own question?
A rep from FNC, which, by the way, is not running the Bush interview until another day, said it offered the interview to the broadcast network, which jumped at the chance.
Fox sources tell a different tale, one in which brass from News Corp. -- which owns Fox and FNC -- place a call to the suits at the broadcast network and remind them that News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch signs all their checks and that he wants them to to find room on their schedule somewhere -- they didn't say whether he specified prime time -- to let Bush do some on-air spinning on the eve of his address to the U.N. General Assembly.
So fans of "Performing As . . ." will have to wait until 9 p.m. Monday to see the new episode, while fans of Fox's Monday "put out or get out" reality series "Paradise Island" will have to wait until the next night for two back-to-back episodes.