Sheen’s $1 Billion Bender

Charlie Sheen has become a toxic asset.

The Two and a Half Men star isn’t the first network TV celeb to go on rampages fueled by drugs or alcohol or both. But Sheen’s off-camera antics are different—he has shut production down, which is costing CBS and the show’s producer Warner Bros., dearly.

Two and a Half Men is currently the most-watched sitcom on network television, averaging more than 14 million viewers this year and now, in its eighth season, is a $1 billion dollar-plus franchise.

Even in repeats it does well; last Monday, a rerun had the biggest audience in prime time. The show has been the network’s Monday linchpin for years and its audience this season has largely hung around to get both Mike & Molly and Hawaii Five-O off to solid starts.

The program’s network and syndication license fees fetch an estimated $3 million per episode, according to analysts. And with roughly 170 episodes in the can, that’s over $500 million. Network advertising on the show’s CBS run has averaged about $160 million annually for the last three years, according to Kantar Media. The show has been renewed through the 2011-12 season, although expectations are that with Sheen healthy and clean, it could go for a couple more.

As tawdry bad boy behavior goes, Sheen has set the bar pretty high. Tales have been dished by porn stars and others of their nights of sex, drugs, booze and hotel room trashings in the run-up to CBS and Warner Bros.’ decision a little over a week ago to put the network’s Monday night hit on production hiatus as Sheen, for the second time in the last year, decided to give rehab yet another try.

And we can thank our tabloid-obsessed and ever-fragmenting media landscape for many of the juicy details surrounding Sheen’s personal implosion. “I love the guy,” adult film actress Kacey Jordan (Rocco’s Bitch Party 2 is part of her, um, oeuvre) told on Jan. 27, shortly after she, several other porn queens and Sheen purportedly engaged in a 36-hour sex and drugs bender at the sitcom actor’s Hollywood mansion that ended with his being rushed to the hospital.

Of course, who wouldn’t love a guy who offers to buy you a Bentley and keeps throwing handfuls of cocaine at you in between sexual encounters, as she told satellite radio’s Howard Stern last Tuesday?

You would think that such lurid, real-life details—which may titillate younger fans of the show, if not their parents—might give some advertisers pause to reconsider their investments in the program. But, according to Gary Carr, svp, national broadcast at media agency TargetCast, advertisers that aren’t comfortable with Men or Sheen probably bailed long ago. “Some people are sensitive to stuff like this while others will run in anything,” he said. “I think we’ve known for years about Charlie Sheen. This is no surprise.”

CBS said last week no decision has been made about resuming production, but the likelihood is it’s done for the season, at least. And if the show doesn’t go forward next season—not unthinkable if Sheen sobers up and decides he needs a change of venue to stay that way—$260 million in fees and ad dollars for the show would go up in smoke.

But in terms of damage done, CBS is best positioned to take such a hit, said Don Seaman, vp, program analysis at Havas’ MPG. “They have many big shows,” he said. “If this happened to Idol, it would be a huge issue for Fox.”