Networks bet on big-screen names to boost series ratings

Times Staff Writer

Actress Minnie Driver guest stars as a woman going after brassy Karen’s ex-husband on the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” next week. A week later, Demi Moore will play Jack’s ex-baby-sitter.

Meanwhile, on ABC, Ethan Hawke drops in on the spy drama “Alias.” And on the WB, Christopher Reeve, formerly Superman, guest stars on “Smallville,” a series about the superhero’s teen years.

The cavalcade of celebrities is standard operating procedure during February, one of several ratings sweeps months when program planners play all the angles to draw viewers. Like the other main sweeps months, November and May, February sweeps helps broadcast networks and local stations set their advertising rates.

Among the programming strategies, “stunt casting” is the most obvious and least disruptive way to suggest that you’re doing something special (networks are increasingly shying away from big-event miniseries, for instance, as too costly and too risky). Although landing a star for a one-time-only guest spot hardly guarantees a huge spike in ratings, nobody dares sit out the dance.


NBC routinely sets out to prove it has the coolest shows on the block -- yet another way to sell advertisers that it is the network of choice for the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. In recent seasons, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Susan Sarandon showed up on “Friends,” while Michael Douglas and Matt Damon visited “Will & Grace.”

Movie stars routinely flirt with networks, taking big money just to consider doing series television. NBC, which has a deal with Driver to develop a series, figured it would strike while the iron was hot, brokering a role for her to appear on one of its “must-see” comedies. Driver will appear on the Feb. 6 episode of “Will & Grace.”

“We met with her and knew she loved the show,” said Marc Hirschfeld, executive vice president of casting at NBC. “We took that information to the producers, and they were inspired to find something for her.”

Hirschfeld said he is constantly on the lookout for any sign that a big-name celebrity has a soft spot for a particular NBC series. “Entertainment Weekly will have sidebar [asking celebrities], ‘What’s your favorite show?’ ” Hirschfeld said. “If they say, ‘The West Wing,’ believe me we’re calling the producers of ‘The West Wing’ to say ‘so-and-so is a fan of the show.’ ”


More often than not, stunt casting operates on one of Hollywood’s most time-honored traditions: connections.

Hawke, according to his publicist, Robert Garlock, has a friend who “happened to know one of the producers” of “Alias,” the ABC drama starring Jennifer Garner as a sexy, double agent. ABC has an easily accessible promotional angle on Sunday’s episode with the actor who starred opposite Denzel Washington in the feature “Training Day.”

Because networks tend to do things in concert, stunt casting each year tends to take on the dizzying parade of an awards show, with so many names on so many shows that the average viewer can hardly be expected to keep up.

This month, to name a few, Kelsey Grammar will guest star with his former “Cheers” cast mate Ted Danson on the CBS sitcom “Becker” (Feb. 9 at 8 p.m.) and Farrah Fawcett will appear on the CBS drama “The Guardian” (Tuesday at 9 p.m.) ABC has Robin Williams on its struggling sitcom “The Bonnie Hunt Show” on Tuesday.

Wesley Snipes guest stars on Fox’s “The Bernie Mac Show” on Feb. 5 at 9 p.m., while Jennifer Aniston does a guest voice on Sunday’s episode of “King of the Hill” at 7 p.m.

Singer Ashanti turns up Feb. 11 on UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

NBC has Jon Lovitz and Jeff Goldblum doing “Friends” (Feb. 6 and Feb. 13, respectively), and Rick Schroder on the sitcom “Scrubs” beginning Thursday. Sally Field returns to “ER” on Feb. 13, reprising a role that earned her an Emmy.

Arguably the most interesting stunt-casting move of the month is on the WB, with Reeve’s appearance on “Smallville,” the drama starring Tom Welling as a teenage Clark Kent.


Reeve became famous starring in the movies as Superman, before his public image and life were changed dramatically by a 1995 horse-riding accident that left him a quadriplegic.

On Feb. 25 at 9 p.m., Reeve will guest star on “Smallville” as a scientist who gives the young Clark Kent key clues about his history, said Al Gough, the show’s co-creator and executive producer.

Gough says he and fellow show creator Miles Millar talked to Reeve about the role, and the actor agreed -- with one condition. He wanted the show to run a public service announcement at the end of the episode for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. The producers readily agreed.

“We’d always wanted Chris to be on the show,” Gough said. “When we were breaking stories for this season, we had a character who would give Clark a big piece of the puzzle [of] his origins -- the new Superman getting sage advice from a Superman of the past.”