A Changing of the Guard at NBC’s Broken ‘West Wing’

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Times Staff Writer

One term was apparently enough for “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme.

The two, who are also executive producers, informed the cast and crew of the Emmy-winning series Thursday that they would leave after the fourth season, during which ratings have fallen sharply.

The announcement comes at a tenuous time for NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., which along with the other networks will unveil its fall prime-time schedule to advertisers in New York on May 12.


Just three months ago, NBC extended its contract for “The West Wing” for at least two more seasons with an option for a third.

In the fall, the network will pay AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. roughly $6.5 million an episode -- about three times its current license fee but considerably less than the program might have commanded had ratings stayed aloft.

Rumors of Sorkin’s exit surfaced weeks ago, after reports that Warner Bros. Television, which produces the NBC series, had what one source described as a “come to Jesus” meeting regarding his practice of delivering scripts late, which has led to significant budget overruns.

At the network and studio’s request, the program’s third executive producer -- John Wells, who also oversees NBC’s “ER” and “Third Watch” -- now will assume a hands-on role. Wells is a premiere producer, or “show runner,” known to operate on time and under budget.

Executives at NBC and Warner Bros. declined to comment, but sources say there is hope the White House drama can get back on track by focusing more on the characters than politics, which alienated some viewers.

The sources insist that the two producers weren’t pushed out, and cited past statements by Sorkin that he probably would last no more than four years, given his near-obsessive insistence on writing virtually every word.


The declining ratings wore on Sorkin, according to the sources. Nielsen data show that viewing is down 22% this season, to 13.5 million viewers per week, ranking 22nd among prime-time programs. It finished in the top 10 last year.

Increased creative second-guessing of the show -- which in its first three seasons had been a critical darling -- also was an issue. So too was a changed political climate, with a popular Republican administration that might have made the show’s liberal bent less welcome, or at least less relevant.

Sorkin also was said to be frustrated as other networks exploited the show’s vulnerability among younger viewers, some of whom migrated to “The Bachelor,” an unscripted hit show on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC.

Even with ratings down -- and the decline has been a more severe 27% among adults age 18 to 49, the demographic used as currency with advertisers -- “The West Wing” remains a favorite among media buyers because it appeals to the most affluent and well-educated audience in all of network television.

Such viewers are harder to reach, so this year a 30-second commercial spot in the program sold for a premium rate of more than $280,000.

Sorkin’s departure “creates a little bit of peril in the minds of advertisers,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for New York-based Horizon Media, which buys ad time for companies such as insurer Geico Corp. “He’s the show, it’s his baby and it’s won a lot of Emmy awards and critical acclaim. The question will be: Can they pull it off with someone else?”


For all “The West Wing’s” acclaim -- including three consecutive Emmys as best drama series and nine its first season, an unprecedented number for a series -- Sorkin’s tenure has been anything but smooth sailing.

After the show’s second season, Sorkin was arrested at Burbank Airport for possession of rock cocaine, hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana. He pleaded guilty, and the charges were dismissed in December after he completed a drug rehabilitation program.

Although cast members frequently stated how much they loved Sorkin’s writing, insiders say there might be some relief that the show will follow a more traditional production schedule under Wells. The series will complete production for the current season today, with the final episode to air May 14.

Because “The West Wing” is somewhat serialized and doesn’t repeat well, NBC is planning to take the show off for six to eight weeks this summer, using its slot to launch one of several unscripted programs.

“It might be time for some fresh blood,” said Larry D. Gerbrandt, senior analyst with Kagan World Media in Carmel, Calif. “Sometimes shows survive -- even thrive -- under these circumstances.... It’s much more destructive to have the show’s lead actor leave.”

Sorkin and Schlamme’s departure has no bearing on the contract between NBC and Warner Bros.


Sorkin and Schlamme have deals with Warner Bros. to develop additional projects, and they said in a statement they would pursue film, TV and theater.

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.