NBC's acclaimed White House drama The West Wing will conclude its seven-year run in May--as had long been expected--after languishing through a steep ratings decline in recent seasons, the network said Sunday.
In formally announcing plans to bring the series to a close on May 14, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly stressed that the show's fate was strictly a matter of TV democracy--West Wing simply failed to draw enough viewers to keep it on the air.
"It's no secret that the ratings have been tough for the last couple of seasons," Reilly said at NBC's semiannual presentation to TV critics. "There's a point where you look at the ratings and you just say, 'it's time.'"
Still, Reilly saluted West Wing as a show that earned its place as a signature drama on NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., and "one of the most acclaimed series in television history."
The program, starring Martin Sheen as fictional U.S. President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, won the Emmy Award as best TV drama four years in a row and holds the record for most Emmys won by a single series, nine trophies for its first season.
West Wing hit the peak of its popularity in its third season, ranking No. 9 among all prime-time series with 17 million viewers a week. The latest season debuted with just 7.6 million viewers tuning in as the show moved to a Sunday night time slot from Wednesdays.
The latest season revolves around a storyline pitting onetime NYPD Blue star Jimmy Smits in an election battle against M*A*S*H* veteran Alan Alda to succeed Sheen as the next occupant of the fictional Oval Office.
The big question is whether Bartlet, a liberal Democrat now in the twilight of his second term, will be replaced by another Democrat (Smits) or by a Republican (Alda).
Many observers have presumed the series was leaning toward a Smits victory, but that outcome was thrown into further doubt last month by the death of costar John Spencer, who was playing Smits' vice presidential running mate.
Although producers insist the series is nonpartisan entertainment, many liberal viewers have long viewed West Wing as political wish fulfillment while some conservatives scoff at the show as a piece of Hollywood lefty propaganda.
NBC plans to precede the series farewell with a one-hour retrospective of the show, including a tribute to Spencer.
West Wing is not the only political drama beset by ratings woes this season. ABC's Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first female U.S. president, has seen a steady decline in its viewership since premiering to strong numbers in September.