BURBANK, CA: Not long ago, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, a second-year ABC family comedy, found itself faced with a disconcerting dilemma at the hands of tragedy. In September, the show's popular star, John Ritter, died suddenly after suffering from an aortic dissection. Ritter played the main character, Paul Hennessy, the father of two hormonally charged teenage daughters.Instead of ending the show or replacing Ritter's character, ABC opted to take a chance and confront the issue. On Tuesday, the network aired a one-hour special episode in which Paul dies of a heart attack. The decision to incorporate death, said several media outlets that covered the special, was a gamble because Rules is a comedy. Perhaps the bigger challenge, however, was faced by ABC's marketing department, which had to figure out a tactful way to promote the show. In a lengthy USA Today article about the episode, ABC entertainment president Susan Lyne called promotion and publicity "the hardest part." She said, "We want the largest number of people possible to know this hour is on because we're proud of it. But we're being very careful about how we promote it." The network pulled some ads that were planned to run during Rules, and publicized the show apart from its other Tuesday comedies. Executives from ABC and Touchstone Television, Rules' studio, were responsive to speculation that the special was being timed with the beginning of the November ratings sweeps, and said simply that this was the earliest the show could be ready. About ABC's choice to make the sitcom "real," an AP article from the day after the episode aired said, by doing so, "the producers and network have risked conspicuous failure, as well as criticism for tastelessness." ABC and Rules' cast and crew may soon face an uphill PR battle, but for their willingness to confront a tough issue head on, and promote it with class, we give them PR Play of the Week.
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