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Despite Failures, Studios Hedge Bets With Stars

Mar 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Heather Graham learned it the hard way: TV makes stars-but stars don’t always make successful TV shows.

After audiences didn’t flock to the first episode of her romantic misadventure comedy “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson pulled the plug.

Other star vehicles met similar fates last season, including NBC’s “E-Ring,” featuring Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper, and the Don Johnson-starring “Just Legal” on The WB.

The lure of trying to grab audiences-and potential advertisers-with brand-name talent is as strong as ever in Hollywood as producers and networks compete against new breeds of entertainment, including cable, video games and the Internet. The failure rate for the programs, and the cost of hiring marquee talent, highlight the risks.

“Personally, if I was running a TV network, I would stay away from those people, particularly with a comedy, because I don’t think it helps or matters,” said Gavin Polone, an executive producer on “Emily’s Reasons Why Not.”

This season, shows including ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Fox’s “Prison Break” have succeeded without brand-name talent, drawing viewers without the price tags associated with showcasing established stars.

“It’s probably smarter to go with the best actors or actresses,” said Mr. Polone, who is also a partner in the production company Pariah.

The decision to cast a star sometimes is driven less by artistic merit than by a network’s need to wow advertisers at upfront presentations.

“Advertisers have visceral responses,” said Scott Schwartz, who owns the talent firm Vision Art Management, and packaged CBS’s comedy “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and NBC’s “Will & Grace.” “And when they see the star that comes out in May, and the star is charming, all of a sudden they feel much more confident about writing a check.”

But as Ms. Graham, Mr. Bratt, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Johnson learned this year, a star won’t save a series if there are problems with the concept or the writing.

“Regardless of what name you put in there, the audience still wants to see a great show,” said Ryan Martin, a partner at the Agency for the Performing Arts.

Enough shows with brand-name stars succeed to keep net executives returning to the trough, however. That explains why television stalwarts like Heather Locklear, who starred in NBC’s short-lived “LAX” last season, are favorites come pilot casting time. This year she is starring in an ABC comedy project.

“Networks know they can get a certain audience segment to tune in to Heather Locklear’s show,” said Eli Selden, a manager for the talent firm Anonymous Content.

CBS this season has two programs with star leads that are catching on with audiences. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “Ghost Whisperer” has been a regular time-period winner in adults 18 to 49 on Fridays this season. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ comedy “The New Adventures of Old Christine” matched the highest adults 18 to 49 rating for a series in its Monday 9:30 p.m. (ET) slot last week.

“The perfect match of character and actor, that’s what separates these shows,” said Bob Gersh, a partner at The Gersh Agency.

Certain kinds of series, such as shows based around a single lead actor, are most tempting to cast with stars,, said Nancy Perkins, senior VP of casting for NBC Universal Television Studio.

“With shows being an expensive endeavor, hanging it on one actor-proven through other work that the audience loves them-it takes some of the risk away,” Ms. Selden said.

That may explain why ABC was attracted to Ms. Graham for “Emily’s” in the first place. She’d been successful in films including “Boogie Nights” and an “Austin Powers” sequel, and she was a regular guest on the sitcom “Scrubs.” Ms. Graham’s publicist Robin Baum didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment.

Another risk is that the notoriety that can bring an audience to tune in to a star’s show can also turn them off.

“Sometimes a star going into a role on television will not be accepted by the audience,” said Phil Rosenthal, creator of the Emmy-winning CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “All they see is the famous movie star.”

Considering the high failure rate of television series, even shows like “Emily’s” with name talent are bound to fail, said Kelly Lee, executive VP of casting for Touchstone Television and ABC.

“Television is always a gamble,” Ms. Lee said. “We had to take a shot at it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”