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The stars you don't know yet

To watch them is to love them, or at least that's what TV execs are counting on.

June 24, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

CHANCES are you've heard of the "Bionic Woman," but what about actress Michelle Ryan? Or maybe you've picked up on the buzz about the new television dramas "Pushing Daisies" or "New Amsterdam." But do you know who actors Lee Pace or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are?

After a tough season of expensive series with feature film actors who were recruited to star in shows that quickly bombed, television is going back to basics. Next season, the five broadcast networks will debut 36 series, and this time it's all about fresh faces -- actors whom you've either never seen before or recognize the face but don't know the name.

The matchmaking game that is casting has changed markedly over the last few years, as the Internet has made the world smaller, audiences have become more savvy and shows such as "Lost" and "Heroes" paved the way for globe-trotting talent searches that yielded actors from the United Kingdom, Australia, Korea and Japan.

"It's no longer how it was years ago: contacting the top 10 agents on the West Coast and sending those actors to the set," said Marcia Shulman, Fox's executive vice president of casting. "We all really have to earn our audiences now and we have to be incredibly creative. And I think there's a line between familiarity and someone who is exciting and new.

Then too as the networks continue to chase young viewers otherwise busy text messaging or zoning out to their iPods, they're looking for young, sexy new faces.

And, of course, there's one other factor: "Fresh faces are less expensive than established ones," noted Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for Carat, a media-buying firm. "If there's enough going on in the show and a show really starts to take hold, fresh faces will become famous faces. Look at the cast of 'Friends.' "

"I think America likes to pick shows it likes to watch," Brill added. "As long as the acting is there, it doesn't matter that it's somebody they've heard of because it was the story itself that had viewers excited."

Even in the instances where the faces are not so novel this fall -- Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton in Fox's "Back to You," Jimmy Smits in CBS' "Cane" or Peter Krause in ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" -- the networks have opted for actors who have already succeeded in the medium instead of gambling on another James Woods or Sally Field, the only movie stars who survived the challenges of their shows' freshman year on the tube last season. Advertisers seem to be responding: Early signs are that ad sales for the new shows are strong.

It's no coincidence that seven of the actors starring in dramas this fall hail from foreign lands. NBC hired the British Damian Lewis, known mostly for "Band of Brothers," to star in "Life"; the Scottish Kevin McKidd, of HBO's "Rome," to lead "Journeyman"; and England's Ryan as the "Bionic Woman." Alex O'Loughlin, who is the star of CBS' "Moonlight," is Australian; Coster-Waldau of Fox's "New Amsterdam" is Danish and CBS' Lloyd Owen ("Viva Laughlin") and ABC's Anna Friel ("Pushing Daisies") are from London.

"For us, something that was very exciting was bringing Hugh Laurie here," said Fox's Shulman. "Those who knew him were completely blown away by this reinvention of him, and for those who didn't, he was such a fresh new talent."

Showing a serious side

FOX is hoping to hit that jackpot again with Anthony Anderson, who is costarring in "K-Ville" with Cole Hauser. Known mostly as a comedic actor, Anderson plays a New Orleans police detective trying to bring order to his hometown after Hurricane Katrina. "I don't think that a name buys loyalty," Shulman added. "I think that shows are about storytelling and character. And I think a show might be checked out because there's a familiarity component to it, but I could probably give you a bigger list of 'name' actors who were brought to shows that failed versus 'name' actors that were brought to shows and succeeded."

NBC learned that lesson when it stacked "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" with hot TV stars Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and company only to watch newcomers Masi Oka ("Heroes"), America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty") and Jack McBrayer ("30 Rock") steal the limelight.

"It's all about a balance, because when you look at the season, we were happy to have a show like 'Heroes' to launch, but we were also happy to have a show like 'Studio 60' because of the press attention that those stars do get," said Erin Gough Wehrenberg, NBC's executive vice president of current series. " But there's nothing more exciting than when you launch a star like Masi Oka."

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