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Who's the Charlie Sheen in Your Company?

Maybe it's the approaching Mercury retrograde, but it seems like there's a lot of crazy going on lately:

  • Fresh from an outburst that caused CBS to yank his sitcom Two and a Half Men for the season, Charlie Sheen is giving interviews about his "Adonis DNA and tiger blood"
  • Christian Dior designer John Galliano was fired following an on-camera drunken anti-Semitic tirade
  • A senior U.S. diplomat has called Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi "delusional" and "unfit to lead" following a grandiose and rambling rant that sounded kinda Sheen-esque.
All three pose critical risks to enterprises that have been poorly managed by those around them.

Sheen's public meltdown is big even by Hollywood standards -- what we might call "The Full Mel Gibson" -- and then some. The cost to the network and the show's production company could top a quarter of a billion dollars.

Two and a Half Men is more than the number one television comedy. It's a core asset for CBS and Warner Brothers, worth a great deal now in ratings and ad sales and worth even more in the future as content for syndication. (Full disclosure: CBS is BNET's corporate overlord.) And the core asset's core asset is Charlie Sheen, who plays a louche, substance-abusing, uber-womanizing character named "Charlie."

We loved him in Wall Street, but...
Sheen had more in common with his character than a first name. Headline fodder for years, Sheen has been a substance abuser and womanizer off screen as well. He has been in and out of rehab, in and out of marriages, and in and out of jail. He has been seen in the company of porn stars and prostitutes.

Late last year, he was removed by the police from a hotel room in New York and hospitalized for intoxication. He refused to return to rehab, insisting that he would detox himself. Production of the television show was shut down temporarily. After he called in to a radio show to engage in incoherent on-air rants that included grandiose claims about his "fire-breathing fists" and nasty attacks on the show's creator, Chuck Lorre, CBS announced that production has been stopped for the season.

More is at risk here than the lost revenues from the shows that won't air. Two and a Half Men had a lucrative two-year contract and even more lucrative syndication deals. But the biggest threat may be to the show's goodwill.

The pleasant frisson for the audience of blurring the distinction between real-life and on-screen Charlie is a double-edged sword. Comedy depends on the "almost," and when the real-life Charlie goes off the rails it makes jokes about his character's substance abuse and womanizing less funny. It may diminish fans' support for the syndicated reruns and DVDs, which would otherwise be a reliable source of revenue for many years.

Enterprises as enablers
Talented people with serious stability issues are a very difficult management problem. It's like the Woody Allen joke from "Annie Hall." A guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "My brother thinks he's a chicken." The doctor says, "Why don't you bring him in?" and the guy says, "We would but we need the eggs."

Enterprises can become enablers for people like Gallianos and Sheen because they think they need the eggs, failing to step in until it is too late. Everyone needs to hear "no" sometimes, and every company needs someone who knows how and when to say it.

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