ABC Ponders Future of Ritter Sitcom

09/15/2003 AT 10:27 AM EDT

While fans, friends and family members mourn the unexpected death of John Ritter, who collapsed Thursday on the set of his hit show "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," ABC executives are grappling with how to proceed with Ritter's show, the most popular sitcom on the network.

The New York Times reports that ABC executives are keeping mum about the future of the program, other than to extend their condolences to the Ritter family. After his collapse, the actor, 54, was taken to a hospital, where he died of a torn aorta. His longstanding heart condition reportedly had gone undiagnosed.

The course to take with the show will be decided after the passing of at least a week, one ABC executive tells The Times, saying that it is likely that "8 Simple Rules," which last season had an average weekly audience of 11 millions viewers, will continue in some form.

Among the ideas that may surface, The Times speculates based on speaking to those connected with the third-rated network, is that Ritter's death may be worked into the show's plot. His character was a sportswriter who works at home in order to be close to his three children.

Another possibility would be replacing the character with another actor (as happened on "Spin City," when Charlie Sheen stepped in after Michael J. Fox bowed out once his Parkinson's disease became too pronounced).

But it's always risky dealing with a situation like this. The show will not be broadcast this week, and there are only three episodes of "8 Simple Rules" starring Ritter ready to go for the new season, which begins a week from Tuesday.

In the meantime, cable's Nick at Nite will air a marathon of "Three's Company" -- the '70s sitcom that launched Ritter -- starting Monday night at 9 p.m. and continuing through Tuesday at 6 a.m.

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