'The West Wing' is axed as viewing figures head south

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The Independent Online

The era of President Bartlett, the fictional commander-in-chief in the long-running prime-time series The West Wing, is coming to an end. That will not surprise ardent fans of the show - a presidential election is in the offing and Bartlett can't run again. Except that this is more serious: it's curtains for the whole show.

Executives from NBC in New York confirmed yesterday what many industry-watchers had been expecting and its admirers dreading. They intend pulling the plug on the programme for good when its current season - the seventh - ends in May. It will leave empty the space it has occupied on America's television sets since its debut in 1999, when the real-life Clinton presidency was in its twilight.

Thus it is farewell to a weekly fix of political intrigue and clashing ambitions in the faux Oval Office, where Bartlett was played by the veteran actor Martin Sheen. Liberals are likely to be most disheartened by the decision; the show has never been accused of putting a pro-Republican gloss on Washington.

In spite of its critical success, The West Wing has been suffering a ratings slide for some time. The decision may also have been spurred by the death from a heart attack in December of John Spencer, who had a key role as the gruff former presidential chief of staff, Leo McGarry.

"We are proud to have had the opportunity to bring television viewers one of the most acclaimed series in television history," noted NBC's entertainment chief, Kevin Reilly. "From the venerable, moving performances by the first-rate cast to the sterling, creative team behind the camera, this series has left an indelible imprint on the landscape of television drama."

But just as Sheen has been playing a lame-duck president for the past few weeks, so the show itself may have betrayed the same "enough is enough" air. "There's a point when you look at the ratings and say, it feels like it's time," Mr Reilly admitted. The finale will be aired in the US on 14 May and will be a two-hour affair, the first taken up by a retrospective of the show's highlights, followed by a final episode that presumably will attempt to tie up any of the loose ends in the storyline.

Clearly there is no longer any point in speculating on what the future might have held for the Republican and Democrat nominees currently slugging it out on American television screens to win the election to succeed Bartlett.

The original creators of the show, Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, are not expected to participate in the swansong episode, having moved on to other projects. Under their guidance, The West Wing was the first show to garner four Emmy awards for best drama in a row.

For viewers who might miss their weekly glimpse into the show's phoney, but often thoroughly believable Oval Office, there are other options on the American television schedule, even if their tint will be decidedly more red than blue. ABC has scored the most plaudits this season with its launch of Commander-in-Chief starring Geena Davis, as the first woman president. And there is plenty of White House input in the new episodes of Fox Television's hit show 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Although it was the death of Mr Spencer that first stirred rumours of the impending demise of The West Wing, NBC said the decision to axe it had been taken beforehand. The network is suffering the worst ratings slump of its history. Just as presidents have time limits, so too, it seems, do television shows about them. Especially if viewers are voting with their fingers and flipping to another channel.