IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Networks push big stars in new series

But does a big star guarantee a hit? Geena Davis would probably say ‘no’
/ Source: Forbes

It's a television truism: Stars don't make shows. Shows make stars.

But if that's the case, why do television programmers constantly bank on big names to draw viewers? At this week's "upfront" events, designed to get advertisers to shell out billions for next fall's television schedule, the broadcast networks rented out fancy Manhattan theaters, wooed clients with free booze, and talked up their strategies to generate online eyeballs. And when all else failed, they whipped out their celebrities.

Among the Hollywood heavyweights headed to primetime next fall are Ted Danson (on ABC's “Help Me Help You”), Calista Flockhart (ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters”), Tina Fey (NBC’s “30 Rock”), Jeff Goldblum (NBC’s “Raines”), Anne Heche (ABC’s “Men in Trees”), John Lithgow (NBC’s 20 “Good Years”), Virginia Madsen (CBS's “Smith”), Matthew Perry (NBC’s “Studio 60”) and James Woods (CBS’s “Shark”). And just in case ad buyers didn't get the message this week, the networks made a point of dragging their luminaries to cocktail parties for handshakes and snapshots.

(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

But while an up-close look at a star might impress an advertiser in May, there's no guarantee viewers will care in September.

Take showbiz veteran Bette Midler’s sitcom in 2000, a comedy on CBS loosely based on her own career. It didn’t last a full season.

That same year, Fox rolled out “Roseanne’s” John Goodman. He gave it a shot as a sports-loving, beer-loving gay man in “Normal, Ohio” on Fox. It got pulled after 12 episodes.

And in January, ABC heavily promoted “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” starring “Boogie Nights” beauty Heather Graham, then yanked the show after one airing.

So in a climate where both viewers and networks executives have twitchier fingers than ever, why do broadcasters continue to reach for big name — and big budget — talent?

“Stars certainly have built-in audiences who will take a chance on watching,” explains Alan Gould, founder of advertising consultancy IAG Research. "That’s a big motivating factor to get some of these brand name folks on board.”

And some star-vehicles do succeed. Michael J. Fox, most famous as Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” certainly made it work. Fox resurfaced on TV in 1996 as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty on ABC’s “Spin City,” which aired nearly 150 episodes before it finally got the proverbial boot in 2002.

Brand name comedians Bill Cosby and Roseanne Barr successfully parlayed their fame — and talent — into successful television programs as well. In fact, Cosby did it twice — first with “The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, and then again with “Cosby,” which remained on the air for four seasons.

Some would argue mega-franchises like CBS’s “CSI” or NBC’s “Law & Order” should count as they too boast star-studded casts. But in the case of these powerhouses, it is the brand, rather than the stars themselves, that keep audiences tuning in.

Meanwhile some of TV's most successful shows were launched with anonymous actors. When NBC’s “Friends” debuted in 1994, the only known entity in the ensemble was Courtney Cox, whose claim to fame was a 1984 cameo in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video.