PASADENA, Calif. – NBC's political drama "The West Wing," which briefly made bureaucrats hip and won four Emmy awards for best drama, will end this spring with the inauguration of a new fictional president.
NBC announced the series' conclusion after seven seasons on Sunday. In the end, it fell victim to television's democratic process: sinking ratings, particularly after this season's move to Sunday nights.
The series will end May 14, preceded by an hour's retrospective.
Actors and producers toasted the show's end Sunday night at a cocktail party with television critics, who championed the series from the beginning.
"We knew we had a special show and we remained as a family," said Martin Sheen, who portrayed President Josiah Bartlet. "We all knew that we weren't going to get this kind of a chance again."
Series producers have only in the past few days decided who would win the presidential campaign that has been this season's main story; it will be revealed in April. The contest pits a Democrat played by Jimmy Smits and a Republican portrayed by Alan Alda, and the show's writers have fought over who should win.
"It's been quite a brawl," said John Wells, executive producer.
The decision to cancel it was made before actor John Spencer, who played former presidential chief of staff Leo McGarry, died of a heart attack Dec. 16, said Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president.
Although "The West Wing" briefly considered it calling it quits after Spencer's death, or remaking episodes featuring him that were filmed but not yet aired, Wells said they ultimately decided to use the late actor's work.
It's been tricky working the death into the story line; McGarry was a candidate for vice president, and producers found there was no constitutional provision for what happens when a candidate dies so close to the election.
"We're now dealing with the death of a character we loved after having dealt with the death of a person we loved," Wells said.
Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Washington insider who is one of the show's executive producers, said he knew the show was making a cultural impact when he found politicians who rarely watch TV were fans. He found it a better place to debate issues than real political shows on TV, he said.
Actor Bradley Whitford said he once heard from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was upset that nobody seemed to care when his television counterpart died.
"I actually would get lobbied by lobbyists," he said. "I thought they wanted my autograph. But they were lobbying to get their issues mentioned on the show."
Producers are negotiating the return of Rob Lowe, the early series star who left because he was upset by his diminished role, for the finale. Series creator Aaron Sorkin — responsible for the rapid-fire style of dialogue — has no plans to return.
Sheen said the show's most positive impact on the country was, during a cynical time, to make people realize the important job that public servants perform.
"The government continues because of people who care for the country," he said.
Meanwhile, NBC announced a reshuffling of its midseason schedule, effective after the Winter Olympics. "Las Vegas" will move from Monday to Friday; "The Apprentice" will be shifted again to Monday; "Law & Order" will air an hour earlier on Wednesdays; and the game show "Deal or No Deal" will be a regular Monday show.