Bad Rehab

Rebranding Charlie Sheen and the naughty boys

John Landgraf, president and general manager at FX Networks, sat with his team in the glass-walled conference room of the network’s Los Angeles offices last October to hear a pitch for a new series from Bruce Helford, veteran TV writer, producer and co-creator of The Drew Carey Show, and his newest creative partner, Charlie Sheen.

The idea would go on to become the series Anger Management, which debuts June 28 at 9 p.m., anchoring the network’s Thursday comedy lineup. But at the time, a skeptical Landgraf had agreed to the meeting largely as a professional courtesy. Just eight months earlier, Sheen’s five-alarm flameout got him fired from the CBS smash Two and a Half Men, throwing the show’s future into chaos. With a season average of 11.6 million total viewers, the sitcom commanded a monster $200,000 per 30-second spot.

Since FX airs Men reruns, the shutdown hit close to home. Partnering with the self-proclaimed “assassin warlock” was a long shot, Landgraf recalls. There was “a fairly high bar and a certain amount of nervousness in getting back into business with Charlie,” he says.

Sitting comfortably side-by-side, Helford, 60, and Sheen, 46, served up the concept: The actor would play Charlie Goodson, a baseball player with temper issues turned anger management therapist. The duo had their routine fairly well mastered, since they’d already shopped half a dozen or so companies en route to the 12 to 14 that would hear their pitch—among them, Hulu, Netflix and all the broadcast networks save Sheen’s old stomping ground, CBS. With Helford clad in a polo shirt and Sheen in a sport jacket, the writer delivered the formal pitch while the main attraction cut in with comments, jokes and thoughts about how the show related to his own life.

As the duo continued, it became clear there was more to the show than a Charlie Sheen meta-joke about anger, including complex and loving relationships with women who were not the one-dimensional bimbos Sheen’s character, Charlie Harper, cycled through on his old program. At one point during the FX pitch, as Landgraf recalls, Sheen said: “I don’t want Two and a Half Men to be my legacy. I want to do something that I can be really proud of on every level—creatively and personally.”

After the meeting, the FX team was excited. Helford’s setup was more than just one-note shtick. It was a clear, optimistic and nuanced vision of the next phase of Sheen’s life. Chuck Saftler, evp, FX Networks, calls it “a perfect articulation of where somebody goes after such a public debacle.”

Adds Landgraf: “What an actor chooses to play tells you a lot about where they’re at emotionally. If you think about Charlie on Two and a Half Men, he was bulletproof, gliding through life with no responsibilities or consequences. [In Anger Management], this character’s entire life is structured around the consequences of his anger. Charlie’s decision to play a character struggling with consequences is directly connected to his desire to struggle with those issues in his personal life.”

FX was so impressed that it ordered 10 episodes without even a pilot in a 10/90 deal, with a promise for 90 more in the next two years if the show hits its ratings threshold, adding up to the magic syndication number of 100. “It’s a very astute move,” says Brad Adgate, svp, research at Horizon Media. “This could be the highest profile show of the summer.”

By essentially bringing Sheen “back from the dead,” says Adgate, Anger Management builds on the actor’s implosion, generating coverage like upcoming Newsweek and Rolling Stone covers. “Not only is FX getting Charlie Sheen, they’re getting all the interest that was front and center a year ago,” Adgate explains.

While Sheen now seeks to elevate his persona beyond a celebration of partying and womanizing, the repair of his image to date shows how boorish behavior and scandal don’t necessarily end a career. Chris Brown, Christian Bale and Alec Baldwin are just a few of the others who’ve shown that a celebrity can behave like a brute and escape almost immediately with reputation—and brand value—intact.

At this point, the public feels so intimately involved with famous personalities that short of allegedly committing murder (O.J. Simpson) or wiping out people’s life savings (Bernie Madoff), there is little someone can do to become irredeemable to the American public.

“The public cares less and less about scandal,” says PR guru Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. “They look at it as that’s something juicy—let me read it. Then they move on. The general public expects wrongdoing [in celebrities]. If you don’t murder somebody, everything else goes.”

For the first step of his comeback, Sheen capitalized on his crack-up with a Comedy Central Roast last September, which set a ratings record for the series of specials with 6.4 million viewers, beating out former roastees such as Donald Trump, William Shatner and Pamela Anderson.

“He has always been on our radar for the roast,” says Jonas Larsen, Comedy Central’s svp, specials and talent. “None of us were blind to his troubles. We were concerned about a backlash because we didn’t want to be seen as enabling him. We wanted to make sure he was on a path to recovery.”

DirecTV harnessed the actor’s spaced-out energy in a spot in which Sheen plays self-parody to the hilt. Tor Myhren, president and CCO of Grey in New York, which created the commercial, says his team had no reservations about playing off Sheen’s bad-boy image, believing his real-life antics served the ad’s tongue-in-cheek humor. (The spot warns the consumer that if he doesn’t get DirecTV, he could end up finding himself recreating scenes from Platoon with the actor.)

“You know what you’re getting with Charlie Sheen,” says Myhren. “He’s a controversial figure and a massive star, and because this entire concept was based around spiraling out of control, it just seemed so perfect for what he had just gone though.”

Immediately after the spots began airing, DirecTV experienced a low-double-digit increase in call volume to its 800 number, says Jon Gieselman, svp, marketing. And Sheen’s ad enjoyed 35 percent more YouTube views than the campaign’s four other similar spots and 50 percent more likes on Facebook, according to YouTube and Facebook data.

Again playing to his particular brand of mania, Sheen acted in a Fiat spot, created by Doner in Detroit, portraying him as under house arrest, locked into an ankle bracelet while speeding through his mansion in a Fiat 500 Abarth as adoring models looked on. First released on YouTube, the ad clocked 4 million Web views before being aired on broadcast and cable networks, says Olivier Francois, head of Fiat Brand worldwide and CMO of Chrysler Group.

Sheen is hardly the only bad seed to escape scandal not only unscathed but profiting handsomely. In February 2009, pop star Chris Brown was arrested after allegedly assaulting his then-girlfriend, singer Rihanna, including punching her in the eye and slamming her head against a car window. (Brown later pled guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to five years probation plus community service.)

Brown didn’t make it easy for fans to forgive. He waited more than five months to publicly apologize, claiming that his lawyers had advised him not to speak. Since then, numerous incidents seemed to show a lack of remorse, including a March 2011 appearance on Good Morning America. After he was asked about Rihanna on the program, Brown responded off-air by smashing a window in the studio, then tweeting, “I’m so over people bringing this past s**t up!!!”

Despite being a publicist’s nightmare, Brown’s album, F.A.M.E., released the week of the GMA incident, debuted in the top spot on the Billboard chart, spawned three hit singles and was nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning for best R&B album.

Brown’s success demonstrates how fans will not only stick by a celebrity who misbehaves, but may even identify with him more strongly. (Consider the slew of online devotees who blamed Rihanna for her own attack.)

“People are invested in these celebrities personally. We love what they do, how they look and what they stand for,” says Lisa Linden, CEO of the PR firm Linden Alschuler & Kaplan and a longtime PR adviser to former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. “The collapse of a celebrity in a scandal situation carries a piece of ourselves with it. We want them to recapture the lives and the value they had to us prior to the scandal.”

It is no surprise, then, that when a celebrity falls from grace, plenty of allies are waiting to lift them right back up—and place them atop a pile of cash. But most who misbehave still need to perform at least some sort of public penance. “There is a PR strategy that can almost always be employed,” says Linden, “and No. 1 is to apologize—repeatedly, if necessary.”

The gold standard for the so-sorry rebrand may well be actor Hugh Grant’s appearance on The Tonight Show in 1995 soon after his arrest on a misdemeanor charge for receiving oral sex in a car from a hooker, despite his relationship with winsome actress Elizabeth Hurley.

The scandal blew up only a year after the indie hit Four Weddings and a Funeral cemented Grant’s persona as an adorably stammering heartthrob, one whose popularity largely depended upon his good-guy charm. His dalliance with a Sunset Boulevard streetwalker named Divine Brown could easily have derailed his career.

But several weeks later, Grant addressed his publicity pickle when Jay Leno famously asked, “What the hell were you thinking?” A sheepish Grant apologized, saying simply that he had done a bad thing. He would repeat his mea culpa in subsequent interviews, and the media ate it up. Positive coverage helped his next film, Nine Months, finish the year with a respectable $69 million in box office receipts, despite tepid reviews from critics.

In other instances, the answer to recovering from a scandal is to wait it out. After earning an Oscar nomination for the 1992 film Chaplin, Robert Downey Jr. spent much of the next decade in the gossip pages for numerous drug arrests. In the years to follow, Downey’s repeated comeback bids were stifled when bond companies balked at insuring him.

But after proving that he could stay sober, Downey climbed his way back via smaller films such as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and David Fincher’s critically lauded Zodiac. By the time he won the superhero lead in Iron Man—which ended up as the second-highest-grossing film of 2008, with a box office of $318 million—Downey had paid his dues (again), after working steadily to rebuild his reputation.

Then there are the hotheads who betray themselves by audio recording. In 2007, Alec Baldwin called his daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig” on the answering machine of his ex-wife, actress Kim Basinger. Not to be outdone, in the summer of 2008, Christian Bale reamed out a staffer on the set of Terminator: Salvation in an expletive-laden rant that eventually would be leaked and turned into YouTube gold.

Both Baldwin and Bale apologized publicly—Baldwin on his personal website and The View, Bale on Los Angeles radio station KROQ. After their involvement in respectable and popular projects, both would escape virtually unscathed. Baldwin would go on to a five-year string of Emmy nominations for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, winning in 2008 and 2009. Bale, meanwhile, was coming off 2008’s top-grossing film, The Dark Knight, followed by his 2010 Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter.

Keeping one’s head down can work for those outside Hollywood as well. When once-squeaky-clean Spitzer was revealed to have patronized a call girl and resigned office in March 2008, his career seemed finished. After publicly apologizing and laying low for several months, Spitzer began writing regularly for the website Slate. Among his pieces: “Credit-Default Hypocrites.”

Spitzer would become a commentator on MSNBC and the host of a short-lived CNN show before joining Current TV earlier this year as the host of Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer, replacing ousted pundit Keith Olbermann. Ratings crashed, declining 62 percent among viewers 25-54. (Still, chatter about falling ratings beats what people were talking about in 2008.)

The same bad-boy-goes-good theme is at the heart of Sheen’s comeback strategy. And it is an appealing package, says one veteran media buyer. “The pairing of Charlie Sheen and a show titled Anger Management seems to be a marriage made in heaven,” says the buyer, who adds that the program is perfect for food, beer, auto, soft drinks and movie advertisers.

While the series is expected to get strong viewership out of the gate, the jury is still out, of course, on whether the public will embrace the new and improved Sheen for the long haul. “People will see sides to this character they haven’t seen Charlie play for a while,” says Helford. “I think people are going to say, ‘You know what? This guy is back on top of his game.’”

Perhaps. But either way, FX may be able to have its cake and eat it, too, with potentially two popular shows available for future reruns. Instead of flaming out, Two and a Half Men roared back after Ashton Kutcher entered the plot, playing a heartbroken Internet billionaire to replace Sheen, whose character was dispatched in a bloody train wreck.

That was no metaphorical series ending, since ratings climbed to 12.9 million viewers and a 4.3 rating after the entrepreneurial acting hunk joined in Season 9, raising the cost for 30-second commercials 25 percent to a whopping $250,000.

Whether riding off the rails—and back again—works for Sheen, too, remains to be seen.