Why TV networks should stop casting big-name stars
Movie stars can't sell movies anymore. That's what a slew of think pieces are telling us after the embarrassing flops of films led by Tom Cruise (Rock of Ages), Adam Sandler (That's My Boy), Jim Carrey (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), Julia Roberts (Larry Crowne), and a red carpet's worth of other big-name actors. We're told that the real-life names that used to guarantee money and blockbuster status don't sell movies as well as the names of superheroes or popular books. But movie stars aren't gone; they're just migrating to the smaller screens (and steadier paychecks) of contemporary television.
Around this time each year, TV networks enter a kind of Hunger Games. The mission: Defeat all other network competition and lasso in the biggest Hollywood movie star for their TV pilots. The reward for wrangling the biggest actor, they presume, is a bigger PR boost, higher ratings, and a greater slice of the audience-interest pie — and with those goals in mind, the networks cast their nets in an attempt to "land" A-listers for pilot seasons, dashing off exuberant press releases whenever they make a big catch.
It's only April, and already a bunch of stars have been signed for the fall TV season. Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar will co-star in a CBS sitcom pilot. Allison Janney and Anna Faris will play mother and daughter in a CBS comedy. NBC is building new sitcoms around Michael J. Fox and Matthew Broderick; Greg Kinnear is set to headline a House-like drama for Fox; and Alicia Silverstone is headed to Lifetime. On the other side of the coin, several projects that had received buzz have been shelved because they weren't able to attract major celebrity talent: Bravo's The Joneses, USA's Horizon, and NBC's Donor Party. But as casting directors scramble to attract marquee talent for more than 100 new shows, they're missing one simple fact: Their mission may be doomed (or at least misguided).
According to TV Guide, in several cases, networks and casting directors have jumped the gun by signing big stars at the first sign of interest, even if they weren't right for the part. Both Mandy Moore and Christina Ricci recently left pilots when it became clear they weren't suited for the roles they were cast in. On top of that seemingly flawed logic, the goal of garnering star-powered ratings boosts isn't even paying off. Vegas with Dennis Quaid was not among the 18 shows that CBS renewed, and it could very well be canceled due to lower-than-expected ratings. Last Resort with Andre Braugher has already been canceled, as was 666 Park Avenue with Vanessa Williams.
And that's just this year; other recent TV series that have wallowed in lackluster ratings before getting a swift ax have boasted sought-after movie stars, including The Firm (Josh Lucas), Harry's Law (Kathy Bates), Luck (Dustin Hoffman), Enlightened (Laura Dern), Pan Am (Christina Ricci), A Gifted Man (Patrick Wilson), and Prime Suspect (Maria Bello). Some pilots that "landed" major talent last season never even made it to air, including projects starring David Arquette, Roseanne Barr, Christopher Lloyd, and Cuba Gooding Jr.
That's a lot of failure, especially when one considers that the biggest fall series premiere, NBC's Revolution, features zero A-listers in its sprawling cast. The two biggest comedies on TV are Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. Neither of the shows' executives pushed for star power before their premieres, but they routinely score sky-high ratings that many struggling series led by big stars (Last Man Standing, Malibu Country) would kill for.
Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. Kevin Bacon's The Following on Fox is a hit, as is Zooey Deschanel's New Girl. But for every instance of a big-screen star achieving small-screen glory, there's a graveyard full of failed TV series starring big names — and a blossoming garden of shows that have earned long-term success without a bold-faced name in the cast (just ask AMC, which has scored with The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men). There's no denying the gut-level appeal of a flashy name, but maybe it's time for networks to let the stars fall from their eyes.