Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Can long-running TV shows survive without their stars?

April 27, 2015

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After 11 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey exited the show last week in truly dramatic fashion, shocking the long-time watchers of that series.

This blindside hit fans hard, particularly since he signed a contract to stay on through Season 12, but show creator Shonda Rhimes opted to end his storyline now instead of continuing it another year.  Fans are already petitioning to bring “McDreamy” back, though for anyone who watched the episode with Derek’s fatal turn, it seems like quite an impossible idea.

Recently, Nina Dobrev announced she was leaving the CW hit The Vampire Diaries at the end of the show’s sixth season. Dobrev was a big hit since she played multiple characters on the show.

While fans of these programs might take awhile to process this news, if TV history has proven anything, it’s that long-running TV shows can still go on without their major players … sometimes quite successfully.

Take a look at Grey’s Anatomy itself. While Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo are arguably the “stars” of that show, it has lost many key members of its ensemble, including Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, T.R. Knight, Isaiah Washington and Eric Dane. Grey’s is still going strong despite all of those high-profile departures.

David Caruso made headlines when he opted to leave NYPD Blue after a single season over contract disputes, though, his departure was delayed until four episodes into Season 2. His replacement Jimmy Smits stayed until the end of Season 6. And the show managed to survive without both of them, lasting on the airwaves until Season 12.

Two and a Half Men actually did better (for a while) without Charlie Sheen. After Sheen’s very public meltdown and departure from the hit CBS series, Ashton Kutcher stepped in to replace him for Season 9 and ratings went up by 13 percent.  The show slipped in Season 11, landing in 27th place overall, and signed off for good recently after 12 seasons.

Even Happy Days went on without Ron Howard (aka Richie Cunningham) when he left in Season 7, and the show ran another four years. The ratings did slip, but that had started after Season 5 when it literally jumped the shark (with Fonzie waterskiing over a shark tank).

Some shows, however, never recover from an exit. While The Office never did gangbusters in the ratings (despite all the critical buzz, it was never even in the Top 20 shows, it’s highest rated season still landed it in 52nd place), it was a solid staple for NBC. When Steve Carell exited in Season 7, there were an average of 7.7 million viewers a week, but that dropped to 6.5 and then 5.1 in the two subsequent seasons before it ended.

Will Grey’s go on for long without Derek? Hard to say, but Pompeo is signed on for at least on more season.

STORY IDEAS

Sitcoms That Lost Their Lead Actors and Kept Going

Petition to Bring Patrick Dempsey Back to Grey’s

Patrick Dempsey on His Grey’s Anatomy Exit

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