A New Crop of Breakout Stars

Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The fact that cable-not broadcast-is quickly becoming the most fertile ground to nurture the careers of TV talent was never more evident than at the Emmy Awards telecast earlier this month.
Three of the four top acting trophies went to performers for their work on cable-HBO’s James Gandolfini and Edie Falco won drama trophies for “The Sopranos” and USA Network’s Tony Shalhoub took the comedy nod for “Monk.” What’s more, it was the Fab Five of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” whom paparazzi and statuette-toting stars rushed at the after-parties and on the red carpet, where the reality show stars were working for “Access Hollywood.”
Other cable superheroes include two of the most popular political comedians working today, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and HBO’s Bill Maher.
On the other hand, the biggest stars of broadcast prime time-the casts of “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”-are approaching the end of their series’ runs.
The sudden glut of cable household names can be attributed to a combination of factors: more channels, rising cable viewership, increasing resources and that traditional cable attribute, guts.
“It’s time for this to happen. It was bound to happen,” said Lauren Corrao, senior VP of original programming and head of development for Comedy Central. “On broadcast TV, you have to find performers who appeal to everybody, and everything gets safer and safer and blander and blander. And cable has been able to target their audience, be sharper and funnier, and cut through.”
As an example, Ms. Corrao pointed to Dave Chappelle, host of “Chappelle’s Show.” “Dave developed many pilots for broadcast, but they kept watering him down and he never made it,” she said. “So he decided to just be who he is, and now he’s having a lot of success.”
Network consultant Ray Solley, founder of The Solley Group, also cited Mr. Chappelle as a good example of a “cable-type persona.”
“In cable, you don’t have to be all things to all people,” Mr. Solley said. “Dave Chappelle doesn’t have to be Johnny Carson. The bull’s-eye is a different size bull’s-eye for what the talent has to hit. And broadcast plays more to type, while cable plays against type.”
In other words, performers on cable do not have to appear idealized. In fact, it helps if they’re flawed. Mr. Chappelle, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and even Hilary Duff, star of Disney Channel’s “Lizzie McGuire,” have cable personas that are more textured and that reveal stronger points of view than their typical broadcast counterparts. Which perhaps also explains the media attention. Journalists who find themselves writing about the same broadcast personalities every year are drawn to cable personalities like Mr. Stewart, whose shoot-from-the-hip sound bites are more likely to stir things up than would the stately Dan Rather.
“All good, successful television has to be character-driven, and we’re able to present characters who are much more flawed,” Ms. Corrao said.
Cable wasn’t always this way, Mr. Solley said.
“Before, cable was not known for personalities,” he said. “Cable has traditionally been the home of formats. It’s been `Biography.’ How many years has TLC had hosts and talent on air, and now suddenly [`Trading Spaces’ host] Paige Davis is a star. As cable evolved, after they figured out how to slice-and-dice a documentary as many ways as possible, the next step was to have a point of view and personality.”
Even if that personality is an earthy-talking granny such as Sue Johanson on Oxygen’s “Sunday Night Sex Show.”
Gerry Laybourne, chair and CEO of Oxygen Media, imported Ms. Johanson sex advice show from Canada last year, convinced that her blunt style could connect with viewers.
“Good television personalities have been with us since the beginning of time, but what’s different is that now, not just mainstream personalities are breaking through,” Ms. Laybourne said.
Still, she added, “There isn’t a broadcast network in the world that would have taken a chance on a grandmother talking about sex.”
Doug Herzog, president of USA Networks, agreed that the key to pulling viewers to cable is “giving viewers something they’re not giving them on the broadcast networks.”
Mr. Herzog opts for a slightly more reliable method than taking chances on new talent-hiring well-known actors such as Tom Berenger for “Peacemakers.”
“It doesn’t hurt when you’re in business with Tom Berenger, in business with a movie star,” Mr. Herzog said. “On the same token, Tony Shalhoub. People recognized and enjoyed them in movies and now on cable.”
Yet another way cable has evolved: Now that many networks are profitable and more visible, they’re not only launching new faces, they’re attracting Hollywood veterans, who are further solidifying cable’s reputation as a star stomping ground.
TelevisionWeek has chosen 10 performers who represent the range of stars on cable today, including a veteran actor, a Canadian sexpert, a teen idol and a stand-up comedian. Some have broken into the mainstream for the first time, while others have emerged from a career slumber. But they all scored career highlights in 2003.