<EM>Charmed</EM>'s Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan and Kaley Cuoco Charmed's Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan and Kaley Cuoco

With its Jan. 22 broadcast, WB's Charmed (Sundays at 8 pm/ET)  which premiered Oct. 7, 1998  becomes the longest-running television series boasting all female leads, having bewitched viewers for more years than such estrogen-heavy fare as Laverne & Shirley, Designing Women and Sex and the City. To mark the milestone, TVGuide.com sat down with executive producer Brad Kern to assess the show's assets, assay the avidness of its fans and conjure up a peek at its future  no matter how (gulp!) finite it may be.

TVGuide.com: Regarding the milestone you've achieved, how does one even stumble upon such a factoid?
Brad Kern:
I don't know. I kept pressing the publicity people, saying, "Are we sure we're right about this?" because wasn't Murder, She Wrote on for, like, 12 years? They said, "No, no, this is for female leads, plural." I guess the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences contacted Paramount to alert us to the fact that we had surpassed the longest-running hour featuring female leads, and the only milestone left [to surpass] was the longest-running half-hour [Laverne & Shirley].

TVGuide.com: And this Sunday, you actually take the title.
I wonder if I get any door prizes!

TVGuide.com: Something I always find interesting is that every week, Charmed lands in the Top 20 searches on TVGuide.com, but, of course, the show isn't in the Top 20 of the Nielsen ratings. Why do you think that is? What's your view on the fan base?
The WB has moved us three or four times, and yet each time they do that, the fans have followed. I just think these kinds of shows lend themselves to loyal fan bases. When I was on [The Adventures of] Lois and Clark [as a coexecutive producer-writer], the Internet was just becoming big, and we had a huge fan base on that show. I know The X-Files does and did. And Buffy, and now Lost. These shows all seem to attract computer-savvy fans. Once they like a show, they are loyal as loyal can be, and that's probably why we get so many hits on the Internet.

TVGuide.com: Plus with this type of show, fans can get wrapped up in the mythology, the addition and subtraction of powers, the assorted demons....
Sure almost to a fault. Unfortunately, all shows have to reach beyond the loyal fan base, and those [new viewers] would get lost in the minutiae if you spent too much time trying to connect all the dots. Part of the challenge is to always reward the loyal fan base with consistent mythology, but not be so locked into it where you've cornered yourself and can't do stories that the rest of the audience can follow.

TVGuide.com: One fan criticism is that Charmed, as of late, sometimes veers from sisters-focused storytelling and is more about other relationships.
There are two reasons for that. One, it's the eighth year, so you have to branch the series out; it has to grow from what you've done. The second reason, which ties into the first, is that there are only so many "sister stories" you can do. The stars have been doing the series for so long that the only way I can make it fresh for them is to give them new material that has them, more often than not, working off other actors and characters, while I also try to give them some time off. Working eight straight days, like they did for so many years, [makes them] burned out, and understandably so. I'm fully aware of the loyal fans' concerns of pulling away from the sisters, but there's no way to do it anymore. Eight years later, you can't have the sisters still sitting around the dinner table complaining about life every week because after a while, they look around and go, "Didn't we have this conversation before?"

TVGuide.com: You've also taken some heat for writing out Brian Krause's Leo. Did you anticipate that, or did you think you could slip him out quietly?
When I was forced into writing Leo out of the show, for budgetary reasons, the first thing I told anybody who would listen  the powers that be  was that it is a huge mistake and the fans would be in an uproar. But the budget ax swung very deeply in bringing us back [for this season], and it was non-negotiable. I had nothing to do with it. I'm the first one to say that, because I was the one left having to figure out how to take him out! I was the one who fought for him to be on the show for even 10 episodes this year. I had to find money from other places to keep him around.

TVGuide.com: You had to fire a couple of leprechauns, didn't you?
I had to do a lot, personally and professionally, to figure out where some of that money would come from. Knowing the fans would be upset and knowing that this is the series finale we're building up to, the only thing I felt I could do was not to kill off his character, but basically put him in limbo and play "How to bring Leo and Piper back together" for the rest of the season leading up to the finale, where hopefully we'll be able to creatively and proactively bring him back.

TVGuide.com: So is this officially Charmed's final season?
Nobody at WB will commit one way or the other. I've heard nothing about it. As far as I'm concerned, this is it. Last year the show was held in limbo, but fortunately "the governor called" and we got another year. I wasn't able to craft a season or series finale [then], so I did sort of a hybrid, which to me was disappointing creatively. This year, with no contract for the girls [Alyssa Milano, Holly Marie Combs, Rose McGowan and Kaley Cuoco] and no contract for me, the WB seems to be looking forward to looking for "the next generation" of shows. We're still an expensive show, and all those factors tell me that, here in the middle of January, I'm just pushing toward the series finale. It's too late for them to say, "We want to find a way to make a ninth season" but it doesn't mean there can't be a spin-off.

TVGuide.com: Is the sometime-rumored Kaley Cuoco/Billie spin-off an option?
Any spin-off is still an option, because no one has ruled out any options at the WB. I have heard nothing, the silence has been deafening. I've just been going about doing my job and trying to build up to a series finale, not something that's neither here nor there like last year.

TVGuide.com: With that said, what's coming up during the back half of the season? Any returns for Cole or Prue?
[Laughs] In my ideal world... The huge problem I have to deal with this year is the budget cutback. I'm trying to save money each episode so I can afford to bring back as many of the regular cast members as possible. Who that will be, I don't know, but my plan is to have the equivalent of a "family reunion" including as many people as I can afford. I'm not going to be able to get Julian McMahon back [as Cole]; I twisted his arm, and begged and bribed him to come back for the 150th episode last year, which he so lovingly offered to do. But that doesn't mean I don't have flashbacks! [Laughs] I can pull back the celluloid. The goal for me is to take the series out the way it began. It's interesting that one of the criticisms, rightfully so, is about the lack of sisterhood, but I'm building to it being all about sisters. Even when we talk about Kaley Cuoco's Billie, we're going to be bringing her sister, Christy, into the show [played by recent Supernatural guest star Marnette Patterson], working around the final ultimate battle. That seems kind of poetic because that's what the series has fundamentally always been about, and that's how it will end.

TVGuide.com: What's the bullet on Christy?
As we know, she was kidnapped by a demon when Billie was 5 and the sister was 7. She will be found after spending the last 15 years with demons.

TVGuide.com: Hmm, I take it she's not too happy.
She's a little traumatized, and certainly mysterious. Who is she? Is she the sweet child who had the potential of powers before she was taken, or has she been Stockholm Syndrome'd and now believes in the demonic way?

TVGuide.com: Ah, the age-old nature vs. nurture debate.
You got it! [It's a question] we've played with and toyed with and worked every way possible over the last eight years, and [for the finale] we would like to return to it.