What Happens to Ratings When TV Shows Change Leads

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Last night, CBS announced that departing CSI lead actor (and Boyz n the Hood alum) Laurence Fishburne will be replaced on the series next season by Ted Danson. Fishburne was himself a replacement for the show’s original leading actor, William Petersen, who fronted CSI for its first eight seasons before Fishburne took over. The ratings have dipped a touch in the last year, but it is still one of the most popular shows on television — a case where the series and the brand did just fine without the leading actor, and it will presumably continue to thrive once its third lead takes over. (All we have to say about Danson’s participation is this: he better still make time for Bored to Death.)

This turnabout at CSI, the continuation of Two and Half Men with Ashton Kutcher taking over for Charlie Sheen, and this season’s exit of Steve Carell from the leading role of The Office (which will continue for an eighth season, reportedly with British comedienne Catherine Tate stepping in as Dunder-Mifflin manager, and with support from new cast member James Spader), got us thinking about other shows that had soldiered on after losing their leads — and what had happened to them. After the jump, we’ll look at five shows that thrived under new leadership, and five shows that, well, didn’t.

Law & Order

Probably the most famous example (domestically, anyway) of a revolving-door cast was Dick Wolf’s long-running cops-and-lawyers drama, which ran 20 seasons on NBC and had lost its entire original cast (George Dzunda, Dann Floreck, Paul Robinette, Michael Moriarty, and Steven Hill) by halfway through the run (all but Hill were gone by season five). But the actors weren’t the stars of Law & Order, the brand was — as evidenced not only by its long run with a constantly-shifting cast, but by the four spin-off series (and four video games!) it spawned.

Dr. Who

The long (long) running BBC sci-fi series features perhaps the most clever device for adapting to cast changes, first cooked up when original lead William Hartwell decided to leave the show at the end of its fourth season (or “fourth series,” as the Brits call ‘em). The show’s writers decided that the show’s title character, an alien traveler/”Time Lord,” could — when critically injured — regenerate his body into a new form. With that, Hartwell (the “First Doctor”) was magically replaced by Patrick Troughton (the “Second Doctor”), an actor bearing no resemblance whatsoever to his predecessor, and the series carried on. In the forty-five years since, the character has undergone this transformation ten more times; the current “Eleventh Doctor” is played by Matt Smith, and the show is as popular as ever.

ER

This fast-paced medical drama created by Michael Crichton was a smash from its debut in 1994 on, partially due to its talented (and attractive) ensemble cast: George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Julianna Marguiles, Eriq La Salle, Noah Wyle, and Sherry Stringfield. But as movies and other opportunities beckoned, the cast began to peel off: Stringfield left first, at the end of the inaugural season (though she returned later), and the entire original ensemble followed suit, though many returned for occasional appearances after their departures. As they left, new blood was brought in over the course of the show’s 15 seasons, including Laura Innes, Maura Tierney, Goran Visnjic, Linda Cardellini, John Stamos, Mekhi Phifer, and Angela Bassett. Ratings eventually dipped in the show’s last five seasons, but it remained a venerable and reliable series for by-then troubled NBC.

Cheers

The first five seasons of this bar-set sitcom ran on two tracks: as an ensemble, character-based comedy with laughs provided by the Boston bar’s regulars (including barflies John Ratzenberger and George Wendt, waitress Rhea Perlman, and bartenders Nicholas Colasanto and, later, Woody Harrelson), and as a will-they-or-won’t-they screwball romantic comedy fixated on the opposites-attract sexual tension between Ted Danson’s dopey but sexy bar owner Sam Malone and Shelley Long’s snooty waitress Diane Chambers. But when Long co-starred in the 1987 hit movie Outrageous Fortune, she decided to leave the series and pursue a career in films (a much-maligned decision, in that it led to such long-forgotten vehicles as Hello Again and Troop Beverly Hills). The fifth-season finale set up Sam and Diane’s wedding, which was postponed when a potential book deal came through for Diane; when the show returned for season six, Sam (who had sold the bar to corporate owners to pay for a boat, which subsequently sunk) had a new leading lady: Kirstie Alley’s uptight middle manager Rebecca Howe, who co-starred for the show’s last six seasons. The show didn’t suffer from Long’s absence — in fact, ratings ticked up, with the show consistently finishing in the top five.

NYPD Blue

Long’s name was bandied about plenty when David Caruso, the breakout star of Steven Bochco and David Milch’s raw, controversial cop show, decided to depart only one season into its run. What’s worse, he reportedly made the call because the show’s second season shooting schedule would prohibit him from starring in Jade, a Joe Ezterhaus-penned thriller that he’d have been smarter to avoid altogether. Nevertheless, Caruso’s John Kelly left the NYPD four episodes into season two, and Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz got a new partner: Bobby Simone, played by Jimmy Smits. Ratings actually improved in the absence of Caruso, whose film career crashed and burned (he returned to TV with the short-lived drama Michael Hayes in 1997, but didn’t find another hit until he was cast in the leading role of CSI: Miami five years later). But Smits didn’t stay either — he departed at the end of season five, replaced for the next three seasons by Rick Schroeder, then for the four years following by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Only Franz’s Sipowicz remained throughout the show’s entire 12 seasons.

Spin City

When Spin City debuted on ABC in 1996, it marked Michael J. Fox’s return to series television — under the guidance of Gary David Goldberg, the creator of Family Ties, the show that had made him a star. Goldberg created (with Bill Lawrence) a show custom-made for Fox’s talents: an ensemble comedy set in the office of the New York mayor, with Fox cast in the leading role of Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty. Formulaic but fast-paced and funny, the show was a hit with viewers and critics, but Fox’s worsening Parkinson’s symptoms (he announced that he had the disease during the show’s third seasons) and commitments to raising awareness and funds for Parkinson’s research led him to leave the show at the conclusion of its fourth season. Rather than ending the run of the Fox vehicle when Fox left, the show was overhauled: Charlie Sheen was brought in as a new deputy mayor, production moved from New York to Los Angeles, and several cast members (along with show runner Lawrence) departed as well. Though Spin City carried on for two more seasons, the ratings took a noticeable dip in Fox’s absence, and its final episode aired in April 2002.

Scrubs

Spin City co-creator Bill Lawrence’s biggest hit to date was the long-running medical dramedy Scrubs, which aired seven seasons on NBC before switching to ABC for its eighth year. That season ended with a perfectly satisfying finale (titled, appropriately enough, “My Finale”) — presumably the end of the show, as ratings had dropped, the show was running out of gas creatively, and movies were beckoning star Zach Braff. But then ABC announced that Scrubs would return midseason for a ninth year, albeit in a revamped format; co-stars John C. McGinley and Donald Faison would return as med school teachers, heading up a new cast, with the show’s former stars (including Braff) making occasional guest appearances. However, the show’s already-low ratings sunk even further, with fans (such as your author) fuming that the continuation of the series was a cash grab that tarnished its fine conclusion. After only 13 episodes, the plug was pulled on Scrubs for good.

The Andy Griffith Show

When Andy Griffith decided to leave The Andy Griffith Show, in spite of its position as television’s #1 rated show, it put his producers in a bit of a bind — how do you do a show without the titular star? Their solution was to bring in a new leading character, farmer Sam Jones (played by Ken Berry and introduced during the Griffith Show’s final season), retain the supporting cast, and retitle the whole thing Mayberry R.F.D. The public, still infatuated with Mayberry, stuck with the series — it dropped only to #4 in the ratings during its first two seasons. But Ken Berry, as charismatic and likable as he was, was no Andy Griffith, and the show just wasn’t the same without Andy and Opie. The show slid to #15 in the ratings during its third and final season — probably high enough for a fourth-season renewal, had it not been part of CBS’s notorious 1971 “rural purge,” in which the network pulled the plug on its rural-themed shows (including Hee Haw, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and The Beverly Hillbillies) in an attempt to overhaul their image.

Charlie’s Angels

Six different women filled the roles of the three “Angels” over the course of Charlie’s Angels’s five-season run: Jaclyn Smith (the only actress there for the duration), Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd, Shelley Hack, and Tanya Roberts. Fawcett was the show’s first season breakout star, leaving the series at the end of that first season to pursue a film career (and a marriage to Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors), though she returned for occasional episodes later in the run as part of a contract settlement. However, her departure barely made a dent in the show’s ratings. Surprisingly, the ratings only dipped when Kate Jackson left the show at the end of the third season, dissatisfied with the show’s increasingly cartoonish nature (and the producers’ refusal to adjust her schedule for film opportunities, including an offer to co-star in Kramer Vs. Kramer). Though Jackson may not have been the show’s pin-up, her no-nonsense acting style gave the ridiculous series some semblance of reality; ratings declined, and continued to drop over the show’s final two seasons.

8 Simple Rules

ABC made a mint in the early 2000s with a steady stream of unhip-dad sitcoms, including Jim Belushi’s According to Jim and Damon Wayans’s My Wife and Kids. Sitcom mainstay John Ritter’s entry into the derby, 8 Simple Rules (originally known by its full title, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter) debuted in 2002 to respectable (if not spectacular) ratings. It was renewed for a second season, but with a handful of episodes in the can, the show was hit with an unexpected speed bump: the sudden death of star Ritter. The producers and network did what anyone sensible would do: they replaced him with James Garner and David Spade, and carried on. After airing the remaining Ritter episodes and taking a brief hiatus, the show was brought back, to tackle the admittedly hilarious subject matter of the death of a parent; Garner was added to the cast as mom Katey Segal’s father, Spade as her nephew. Ratings held steady for the remainder of the second season, but plunged in season three, when the show was moved into ABC’s “TGIF” line-up. The show was canned at the end of the third season.