beyond the press release


The Charlie Sheen Show, An 'Epic' PR Contest

The Great Charlie Sheen Show -- the one that's been transfixing the media, lighting up Twitter and giving gossip bloggers carpal tunnel for the past week -- is, at its heart, a PR battle. A pitched and TV/shock jock-friendly one, but a PR battle nonetheless.

On one side is Sheen, as of Monday publicist-less, trying to portray himself as an actor in recovery trying to get back to work. On the other side is CBS, the network that has enjoyed sitcom-segment-leading ratings by airing a show with a Sheen-played, Sheen-esque main character, trying to portray its star as an out-of-control liability. But wait a minute, isn't he? Isn't what CBS bought into?

In terms of public sentiment, it's difficult to say that Sheen is winning the battle at this point. He has often appeared as-advertised: wired, disheveled, his face wearing every minute of his age and abuses. His rants, which have bordered on anti-Semitic and often strayed into both the profane and the ludicrous, seem to play directly into CBS's custom-made image of him. Is life imitating art, or the other way around?



If he is trying to disseminate his key message of being an actor endeavoring to put the past behind him and get back to pursuing his craft, that message is being drowned out by his outward image, his bombast, and his unwillingness to apologize.

So Charlie Sheen is no sympathy-demanding David battling CBS's PR Goliath. But perhaps he's not the drug-addled Don Quixote he seems to be playing on TV and talk radio shows.

Charlie Sheen may be waging his PR battle with CBS in a canny, if unpolished, way. It's certainly not a strategy that a publicist would put forward. Time will determine if it's an effective one.

CBS has been furiously painting a portrait of "Charlie Fiend," while never actually issuing a statement or making a comment to that effect. Yet is there any doubt that the CBS PR machine is doing exactly that in an effort to distance itself from its once-lucrative, always-mercurial, now-loose-cannon star?

Doing so gives CBS a handy cover for halting production on "Two and a Half Men." Claiming that Sheen's off-set performances jeopardize the show's ability to function (a claim reinforced by co-star Jon Cryer's remarks more than a month ago on Conan's late-night show; who knows, perhaps Cryer was put up to that line by CBS brass?), CBS has used Sheen's personal troubles to put the brakes on its sitcom stalwart.

This, of course, is when The Great Charlie Sheen Show went on the road.

As with any PR campaign, there are concrete financial objectives to be achieved. At first glance, these might not be entirely apparent from CBS's standpoint. Sheen has, after all, a reputation and penchant for sordid, well-publicized missteps that dovetailed almost too perfectly with his "Two and a Half Men" character, a fact that has contributed to the show's dominance among primetime sitcoms. What's one more rehab stint but a potential ratings bump?

But CBS Corporation president Les Moonves just Tuesday let slip with the fact that "short-term, financially [the production suspension] is actually a gainer for us."

At a Morgan Stanley Conference in San Francisco, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter, Moonves continued: "Repeats, obviously, get somewhat less revenue than the originals. [But] it is a show that repeats very well. Doing eight [fewer] originals saves us quite a bit of money." So there's the PR objective, plain and clear. Sheen's a marketable star, and the show is a certified hit, but the cost of producing it coupled with the cost of spinning Sheen's behavior outweighed the benefits, at least in the short term. This actually makes Sheen's position more tenable, and a lot more interesting. It's entirely conceivable that Sheen is fighting this battle by unleashing the monster CBS has created over the years. He made the network a lot of money by playing a drunken bon vivant, and by lending a face to a show that was edgy, titillating and captivating in exactly the same ways he is off-camera. Even his interviews and post-rehab behavior -- describing his lifestyle as "epic," appearing on television with adult film actresses -- reinforce the image of him that CBS has painstakingly pointed out. And then he can go on CNN and make a logical, intelligent (if a bit enlivened) case to Piers Morgan, and seemingly contradict all the unhinged outbursts that came before. He may actually be playing the best role of his life: PR impresario.

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