Television
3:23 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

Big Stars Don't Always Guide TV Shows To Success

Originally published on Thu April 17, 2014 7:06 pm

CBS is planning a one-hour season finale for Robin Williams' The Crazy Ones. It was one of three sitcoms built around big established stars this season, all three of which suffered in the ratings. It raises the question: Does television make stars, or is it the other way around?

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

An important lesson from this TV season: big names don't always bring big ratings. Case in point, the CBS comedy "The Crazy Ones," which ends its first season tonight. The show was hailed as the big return of movie star Robin Williams to TV, but it struggled to build ratings on Thursdays. That's despite a big reunion on the show last week between Williams and his "Mork & Mindy" co-star, Pam Dawber, who plays a new confused girlfriend in "The Crazy Ones."

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE CRAZY ONES")

PAM DAWBER: Simon, where are you? You're really different tonight? Is there something wrong?

ROBIN WILLIAMS: When the romance dies and love is a crock, I'm having the fish. How about you?

DAWBER: What happened to the guy who said that he wanted to sleep in late so he could have more dirty dreams about me?

WILLIAMS: He woke up.

CORNISH: We're joined now by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans to talk more about it. Hey there, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.

CORNISH: So what gives? Why didn't the star power of Robin Williams help this show?

DEGGANS: Well, there's an old saying in TV circles that stars don't make television, but television makes stars. And I think we saw that dynamic play out a lot this TV season, especially on the broadcast networks. In the case of "The Crazy Ones," this was a show with double the star power. You had Robin Williams and you also had Sarah Michelle Gellar, formerly of "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer." And they were playing a father-daughter team running an advertising agency. But in the middle of March, CBS renewed 16 shows for the next season and "The Crazy Ones" wasn't among them so fans are worried it might get cancelled. NBC also had Michael J. Fox, a very popular TV star, returning to television, but they wound up pulling that show from its schedule in February with a lot of episodes left to air.

NBC also cancelled "Sean Saves The World," a sitcom featuring former "Will & Grace" star Sean Hayes. Now, I wasn't a big fan of Hayes' show or "The Crazy Ones," but Michael J. Fox's series was an interesting comedy that just could not hold onto viewers after getting a big rating when it first started.

CORNISH: Now, Eric, there's always an exception to the rule, right? I mean, there's got to be some show out there that doesn't fit this trend you're seeing.

DEGGANS: Well, yeah, I'd say the biggest recent example of that on network TV would be Fox's "The Following" which seems to have succeeded last year and this year mostly on the charisma of Kevin Bacon, another film star who decided to try TV. And cable TV is a different arena, you know. In cable TV, buzz counts for more, the audience needed for success is lower and the quality of projects is often a lot higher.

So you've seen stars like Glenn Close and Jessica Lange and Laura Linney have success there. And now we're in a period where even bigger stars are finding ways to do limited runs on TV. So Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson can do a season of "True Detective" on HBO and Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman can do one season on FX's adaptation of "Fargo." And of course, Netflix has Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey on "House of Cards."

CORNISH: So what are the lessons we can learn here from the fate of these returning stars on TV?

DEGGANS: Well, a big name doesn't help much if the show's not good, right? And broadcast networks are often attracted to show with big stars because they draw attention to the new series lineups and it's easier to get advertisers behind them. But if you think about super popular shows like "The Big Bang Theory" or "Mad Men" or "The Walking Dead," all those shows made big names out of the actors who starred in them because the audiences embraced the characters and then fell in love with the performers.

And that's the real secret to success in TV is creating characters people want to welcome into their homes again and again. And you don't need a star to do that.

CORNISH: Eric, thanks so much for watching with us.

DEGGANS: You got it.

CORNISH: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.