LOS ANGELES — NBC may wish Steve Carell was just joking, but a network executive said "The Office" star has consistently told NBC he's leaving after this coming season.
In the network's first acknowledgment of Carell's plans, NBC Primetime Entertainment President Angela Bromstad said Monday the actor's seven-year run as erratic Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott will end when his contract expires in 2011. But Bromstad said the show will go on.
"We've been lucky to have had him as long as we've had. These things happen when you have such a major movie star in a show," she said.
In an affirmation of NBC's faith in a post-Carell "The Office," Bromstad said the sitcom will remain in its 9 p.m. EDT Thursday time slot. It's the linchpin of NBC's schedule on a key TV night of advertising revenue.
"Not to diminish the departure of Steve, because that will impact the show, but we have tremendous faith in the writers and actors to keep it alive," Bromstad said.
Carell, 46, who's become a busy big-screen actor during his "Office" tenure, has said in interviews he plans to leave the series to better balance his work and family life. He's married with two children.
Carell voices the lead character in the new animated comedy "Despicable Me" and stars with Paul Rudd in "Dinner for Schmucks," out this week. His other film credits include "Date Night" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."
The door is open if he wants to make return visits to the show, Bromstad said. He remains in business with NBC: Carell's company, Carousel Productions, has a TV production deal with Universal Media Studios.
Carell was on vacation and unavailable for comment, his publicist, Matt Labov, said Monday.
Whether Michael Scott's job will be filled by a promotion from within or an outside hire is under discussion. Bringing in a big-name star is an option, but "it's not the front-running idea," said Paul Lieberstein, a cast member and executive producer.
"Right now, we're still talking about a lot of scenarios. We're trying to get a sense of what the office is like without Steve. We want to be real: What would this office really do (if Michael Scott left)? We want to pursue this as honestly as Dunder Mifflin would," he said.
Nobody wants to see Carell leave, said Lieberstein, who plays Toby, the embattled voice of human-resources reason.
"But what we'll get creatively is actually very exciting. We don't have to do auto reset at the end of the season, but we get to move on," he said.
Fans have weighed in noisily about how the show will fare without Carell.
"I hear from both, from people who don't want to watch without Steve and from people who say, 'Great ensemble. Keep going,'" Lieberstein said.
"It's not obvious to me we should stop," he said. "When Michael Jordan left the Bulls, nobody said the Bulls should stop. They didn't say, 'Shut down the franchise.'"
Bromstad said the comedy still garners attention and "has a great patina" and talented cast that includes Rainn Wilson, Ed Helms and John Krasinski.
A regular Emmy nominee for best comedy series and winner of the award in 2006, "The Office" is holding steady in the ratings. It drew more 700,000 more viewers last season than it did two years ago, rare for a veteran show.
NBC is owned by General Electric Co.