WORLD: STUART ELLIOTT IN AMERICA

A fall preview issue of the US magazine TV Guide outlines a busy upcoming season for the popular actor John Ritter. On his ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter, he's to learn if his wife's expecting, the issue reports, and on the NBC sitcom Scrubs, he's returning in a recurring guest-star role as the father of a lead character.

Alas, the magazine went to press before Ritter's death from a rare heart condition on 11 September, which felled him on the set of 8 Simple Rules while taping the fourth episode of the second season. His death is raising troubling issues for the media and advertisers that are rarely faced in the make-believe world of scripted series television.

8 Simple Rules was not only the top-ranked new series during the 2002-03 season on ABC, which is struggling to recover from a ratings meltdown; it was a linchpin of the network's strategy to bring back viewers - and advertisers - by returning to its roots as a purveyor of family friendly sitcoms. Commercial time during the show, which opens the network's Tuesday prime-time line-up, has been sold for an estimated $151,240 for each 30-second spot, among the highest prices for ABC sitcoms.

Initially, ABC thought it would be forced to cancel 8 Simple Rules, just days before the 2003-04 season started this week.

Ritter's death was deemed irreconcilable with the premise of the bright, breezy show, centred on a stay-at-home dad (Ritter) whose importance is signalled by the title: it's life from his perspective.

But after consulting with Ritter's family and castmates, ABC decided to revise the series to reflect his death, by having his character also pass away. The three episodes Ritter completed are being shown intact, augmented by taped tributes. Reruns from last season will then appear, giving the writers and producers time to rework story lines to address the character's demise and its effects on his sitcom family. The initial post-mortem episode may appear in November.

As ABC grapples with "how to balance comedy with an honest portrayal of a family tragedy", the trade journal Daily Variety reported: "8 Simple Rules - and its viewers - will now be forced to grow up."

So too will advertisers. Some media buyers are expressing support, but others wonder how simple it will be to proceed without the show's central character. Other sitcoms made over in similar circumstances, such as Chico and the Man and The Royal Family, could not surmount their losses.

But that was then and this is now. Americans, fascinated by the inner workings of the media, have been absorbed in the many reminiscences of Ritter ("Gone Too Soon,"the cover story of In Touch Weekly magazine proclaimed), followed by in-depth coverage of the attempts to salvage the series ("Ritter's ABC show will continue," the homepage of the MSN online service declared).

Indeed, a special programme broadcast on 16 September on ABC, which paid homage to Ritter, drew almost 14 million viewers - the largest audience for any show on any broadcast network that evening.

Is it too strange to suggest that, at a time when reality series are all the rage, the saga of how ABC will cope with Ritter's loss, as it unfolds episodically on- and off-screen, could become must-see TV?

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