Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Big names, big ratings?

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Chris Philpott wonders if famous stars really make shows more likely to succeed.
Hollywood heavyweight James Spader stars in The Blacklist.
Hollywood heavyweight James Spader stars in The Blacklist.

American network NBC did something crazy before the latest television season began: they offered The Michael J Fox Show a full season order, shunning the traditional pilot process and buying 22 episodes of the show before a single episode had been made, based purely on the fact that Michael J Fox was attaching his name to it.

You can probably guess how that turned out. The Michael J Fox Show absolutely tanked in the ratings, dropping below two million viewers before being unceremoniously pulled from the schedule in January.

Mixed reviews hampered the show as well, with many critics concluding that there was really no reason to tune in for a more-of-the-same comedy series; one reviewer referred to several episodes he'd seen, writing that they "aren't bad, really; they're studiously un-bad to the point of blandness".

The poor viewer response to The Michael J Fox Show - which hasn't exactly inspired audiences here at home either - goes against something that many assume to be a tenet of television production: big names inspire big ratings.

It is the same principle that made NBC cast James Spader in The Blacklist, a show which currently stands as the biggest new series of the 2013-14 US television season, and the highest rating scripted series on NBC. Yes, the same NBC that has endured a massive failure with The Michael J Fox Show.

So, the question is, do shows really need big stars to succeed?

It's hard to prove it one way or the other. The Blacklist is a hit, while The Michael J Fox Show is a flop. The Walking Dead has no recognisable, big name stars - at least, nobody on the level of Fox or Spader - yet it's the most successful drama on the planet. Parks & Recreation has some fairly recognisable stars, yet draws low ratings.

Even the most talked about shows are a mixed bag. Game Of Thrones built itself into a massive success with a relatively unknown cast - then proceeded to kill off the most recognisable faces (Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Jason Momoa) over the back half of its first season. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey (and to a lesser extent, David Fincher) is as big a part of House Of Cards' success as anything on the creative side of the show.

It seems clear that television shows don't need big stars to succeed in the ratings - though the right star in the right role, like the charismatic Spader leading the cast of The Blacklist, can probably bump up the figures a little. Big names make life easier for marketing people, too; it's a slam dunk to attach promotions for a show to a recognisable star.

But what about viewer enjoyment at home - is our enjoyment of a show increased by the presence of big names?

For example, would we enjoy Boardwalk Empire as much if Steve Buscemi wasn't leading the cast? Would we have seen straight through The Newsroom - heck, would it even have made it to air - if not for Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin? Would I have been as engrossed in True Detective if anyone other than Matthew McConaughey was in the lead role?

I'd like to think I'm not swayed by celebrity cast members. If I'm being completely honest, I tend to imagine I have a discerning taste in television and can see through gimmicks like this. And it's true, I like plenty of shows that don't boast a big name cast - my favourite shows right now, The Walking Dead and Hannibal, both feature relatively fresh faces.

Yet, I do tend to geek out about big name stars. Buscemi is the primary reason I started watching Boardwalk Empire (though my love of the show doesn't include him now), and I forgave plenty of The Newsroom's first season because "it's Sorkin". I think Spader is the best member of The Blacklist's cast, to the point that the show drags when he isn't on-screen.

Maybe shows don't need big names to be enjoyable. But I feel like they do help build some excitement.

* Do you find you enjoy a show more if a famous face is leading the cast? Who is your favourite big name star on television right now?

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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