Thursday, October 08, 2015

The truth about network casting

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Grant Woolsey:

I know you've mentioned a few times in the past about certain high-end Hollywood types interjecting their own favorites or "pet projects" into certain casting calls. In one of Bill Carter's books, he refers to Jennifer Aniston being one of these, and got an audition for "Friends" because of it. Same with William "Gil Grissom" Peterson on "CSI".

How many times has that happened to you? Does some studio head interject in the casting process and make "suggestions", or do they try to form whole shows around actors they like? Does the choice of actor they're backing sometimes seem completely arbitrary? I find this more noticeable in movies (remember the year of a million Jude Law movies?), but I assume TV gets it a lot, too.

Studios and networks definitely have their agendas. And they exert more and more of their will into the process.  No, let me be clear.  They CONTROL casting.  They make ALL the final decisions.  We producers just do the leg work for them. 

Each network has a casting director. Each network casting director has actors they like and actors they don’t.

When a writer/producer gets his show greenlit to pilot he submits a list of possible actors for each part. The network responds. They cross certain names off that list.  Bullshit that there's not blacklist.  If you're an actor (or writer) on the non-desired list you don't get hired.   )This is especially disconcerting in areas like acting where judgment is purely subjective.)

Networks will then provide you with their list of “recommended” actors.

Like I said, networks fall in love with certain people. And in some cases I don’t know why. But they will jam them into any project they can.  Kim Raver gets series after series. Not that she’s that bad, but she’s sure not special, and there are hundreds of other better actors who can’t even get in the front door.

So if you have a show that features an attractive forty-something woman as a lawyer, or executive, or CIA operative you may well have Kim Raver shoved down your throat.

So you begin the casting process, seeing first the network recommended people. And guaranteed, some are going to be jaw-droppingly wrong for the part. You also see people your casting agent finds.

At one time this meant the actor would come in a room and audition for three or four producers and studio reps. Not anymore. Now those auditions are all taped. And they’re all sent to the networks. So if you’re an actor and you have a bad day, or you read for a part you’re not really right for, your bad reading gets seen by the network. And you can quickly go on the “no” list. That’s like, if you’re an outfielder in baseball, your manager tells you to pitch, you can’t get the ball over the plate because you’re not a pitcher, and the team releases you as a result.

Not fair, you say? Damn right, it’s not fair.

The next step: You narrow your choices down to three for each part. You make deals with them contingent on studio and network approval. The actors must audition for the network now. Talk about pressure. Imagine you’re one of three actors going up for the part of Chandler on a new pilot called FRIENDS. How different is your life if you get the part versus not get the part?

Usually of the three actors, one will be a network favorite going in. And the other two may give better auditions and be better for the role, but the network will approve their darling anyway.

Again, not fair? You betcha.

We had a pilot ten years ago where we had to fight hard to get a certain actor.  The studio didn't love him.  The network sure didn't love him.  But we argued that he was special and different and had an amazing presence.  After bringing him back several times to read, the network finally begrudgingly approved him (but only after we agreed to take an actor they wanted for another part who was terrible).   The actor we fought for:  Aaron Paul.  


For comedies, the fights are usually over the producers’ desire to hire funny people and the networks’ insistence on hiring attractive people. Guess who always wins.

Networks have gotten so ham-fisted these days that even for one or two-line parts like for waiters or clerks, the producers have to submit tapes of at least three candidates to the network, and the network makes the selection.  They don't even trust producers to hire one-line guys. 

It’s maddening and another reason why network television is so bland. They want to go with safe, cute, known, and fuckable.

Do you think James Gandolfini would be hired to play Tony Soprano if it were for NBC? Not a chance. John Stamos would get the part.

Rachel Dratch was supposed to be a series regular on 30 ROCK, but NBC made Tina Fey replace her good friend with Jane Krakowski for the obvious reason.

There are probably fifteen examples of this every pilot season. Or fifty. 

Networks dictate everything. Casting agents may love you and producers may think you’re a genius, but that means nothing if the network doesn’t think redheads are in this year.

My heart goes out to actors. Especially the Rachel Dratch’es. They’re sure braver and tougher than me.

37 comments:

Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder said...

I feel you. Ironically though I think Krakowski was the wise choice over Dratch. That chemistry worked because the vain, vapid Jena was such a contrast to Liz Lemon. Casting Dratch would have been like casting Valerie Harper to play Ted. But as compensation they should have found a Rhoda role for Dratch. Both are hilarious in their own way.

Curt Alliaume said...

NBC apparently wanted to find a successful role for Rena Sofer, who had guested on a number of their shows for years (Caroline in the City, Seinfeld, Friends). She was added briefly to Just Shoot Me! in its final season, after which the perfect role was found for her - unfortunately, it was on the famous flop Coupling.

tavm said...

Speaking of Ms. Sofer, I remember liking when she was recurring on "Ed" and when the series finale of that show aired, Ed Stevens mentioned he didn't want to have a "Coupling" kind of life. I half expected his buddy to mention to mention Sofer's character on "Ed" resembling one of the "Coupling" characters but no, that didn't happen!

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Good looking trumps almost everything else in Hollywood, and often times in the business world and the real world.
The only thing that trump Looks? Money.

Bill Avena said...

Amy Shumer's show had a funny bit where Shumer found a group of women actors saying goodbye to their Last Fuckable Day, where from now on it was long sleeved cardigans.

Bill Lee said...

It isn't fair, but as BBP said, good looking is the trump card. And, let's be honest - if you have the choice between two people for a job, you're more likely to hire the better looking one if everything else is equal. That goes for everyone. It may be subconscious, but it still is going to happen, unless you are trying to make a point.

The big caveat in the above statement is everything else is equal, and in a subjective field, everything is never equal.

Also, the networks do have a point. As long as the actor is competent, eye candy brings viewers. I watched a couple of episodes of Two Broke Girls just because they were hot. They served their purpose - they got me to watch. The writers didn't do their jobs because I didn't stick with it. Same reason I watched BBT the first time. It was funny, so I kept watching. You have to get the viewers to watch the first episode somehow. You need something in the ad that makes people say, "I want to watch that".

stanbaran said...

Bill Lee, I think you missed the point. Everything else is not equal. It's a matter of the hot actor versus the talented one, and the hot one gets the part. If the hot one was just as talented, then things would be equal, but that's not what's going on here.

canda said...

I'm sure certain network males get enamored of an actress, and want her on a show, so they can visit the set often and hang around with her...I'm sure hoping for more than friendship. Or, if not, someone to fantasize about.

Elf said...

As funny as Dratch is, I kind of agreed with the switch on 30 Rock. Remember that Jenna was supposed to be the lead on a prime-time network sketch show. The problem is that in real life, Dratch would never get to be that lead, so having her play that role in 30 Rock would actually seem less realistic.

Abacab said...

When reference is made to 'the network', is that the network which is producing the programme, or the one which is going to broadcast the first run?

Obviously the broadcast network will be wanting to maximise first-run viewers, but the producing one will be thinking about things like overseas sales, so may want to cast performers who have bigger appeal in those markets.

And of course both might have their own irrational favourites.

So do the decisions come from one or the other, or both, and if both, in cases where they disagree, which one has the final say?

Troy Gardiner said...

"The problem is that in real life, Dratch would never get to be that lead, so having her play that role in 30 Rock would actually seem less realistic."

Because realism is what makes comedy work.

Like in The Odd Couple, where two like-minded gentlemen move in together because it wouldn't be realistic for an OCD freak to move in with a slob.

Or in The Big Bang Theory where two nerds live across the hall from a pretty blonde who tells them to fuck off all the time because they're super smart yet socially awkward sci-fi geeks and she's a shallow bitch, because you know... REALISM.

Like this industry isn't confusing enough...

Boomska316 said...

Oddly enough, I now want to see John Stamos as Tony Soprano.

Mighty Dyckerson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cd1515 said...

Ken-
it seems pretty common for writers to complain about network interference, and I have no doubt most of it's true, but I am curious: have you seen or heard of instances where the network insisted on something that actually made the product BETTER?

Anonymous said...

On the flip side of that, if you're an attractive actor or actress, the pressure to give oral sex to people who can help you is intense.

Even really good looking people can be replaced.

If you think some of your favorite actors didn't get down on their knees to secure a role, I'm afraid I have a lot of bad news for you.

Sorry, aspiring actors/actresses, but saying, "but I'm not gay," or "but I'm only 12 years old," or, "but my dad's a famous actor," doesn't relieve you from the task.

You see some of these young "stars" who are 19 going on 40? There's a very good reason for that. It also answers Ken's question, "why do they insist on someone who's not the right actor for the part?"

"Auditions" were held without Ken's knowledge in a hot tub in the Hollywood hills a week earlier.

So, unfortunate-looking actors, count your blessings. You may be unfairly turned away from many auditions, but least you won't have herpes or esophageal cancer in your sixties.


– Sadbutt True

Brian Phillips said...

To cd1515: I cannot, in this case say the network improved Frasier, but they did make two decisions easier for the producers. From deathbyfilms:

"...a casting director showed the producers a photo of David Hyde Pierce noting the similarities between Pierce and Kelsey Grammer, they decided to watch some tapes of Pierce and were completely blown away by his talent. They quickly started creating the character of Niles and approached the network. At the meeting, when they pitched the idea of Niles with David Hyde Pierce in the role, they were taken aback when the network execs said that they loved him and if they wanted him he was pre-approved."

"The producers always had John Mahoney in mind for the role and as with David Hyde Pierce, the network also pre-approved Mahoney if producers could land him."

All of the above is what I have heard. Ken Levine or his colleagues can verify this.

Mark said...

I was planning to ask a Friday question about the amazing casting run of Paula Marshall (I was also going to avoid naming names, but it appears we're past the playing coy phase).

And wasn't Jane Leeves a network choice?

Anonymous said...

I tend to look at Rachel Dratch like I do the sun - I make sure no to stare too long. I hate to be cruel (which means I am about to be cruel) but her looks disturb me to the point that I feel an intense disliking toward her the longer I look at her. The nose, the chin, the lips, the upper lip. On the other hand Steve Buscemi has made a career out of his funny face. And that is evidence #10,234 of why this is a man's world.

Mike said...

"...but those damn network suits wouldn't allow it!"

When teen drama The OC was dumped onto UK TV, presenters Steve Jones & Miquita Oliver would briefly re-enact a scene from the episode or OC creator Josh Schwartz himself would give a brief & illuminating interview describing the episode's creation. Strangely, these interviews, known as The Schwartz Reports, always ended with Schwartz staring and gesticulating wildly and screaming "...but the damn network wouldn't allow it!".
A Facebook memorial has been erected in honour of the cultural significance of The Schwartz Reports.

When Jones shuffles from this mortal coil, his gravestone will bear the legend "Steve Jones, TV Presenter, who once had it away with Pamela Anderson." A parade of elderly men will pay their respects as they shuffle past the grave, shedding a tear for their lost youth and giving a respectful wink to the stone.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I'm curious how many of these "pet" actors/actresses are favorites either because of who their agent is (and the network looking to stay in good favor) or the nature of their personal relationship with an executive or agent (mister or mistress).

Donald Benson said...

Not a mention of Q scores? I thought that was all the rage, pulling up a number to scientifically confirm whether somebody was lovable enough to play, say, an ongoing villain.

As for the casting couch, I read an article suggesting it survives mainly in the form of showrunners and such getting orders to audition (but not necessarily cast) actors totally wrong for a part. Somebody in the executive suite kept a promise by getting the audition, and forcing the creatives to break the bad news.

Footnote: The movie "Son of Sinbad" (1955, with Dale Robertson and Vincent Price as his comic sidekick) fills scenes with harem girls, scattering them all over like throw pillows. The bandits are the DAUGHTERS of Ali Baba. Stripper Lili St. Cyr has a major (non-stripping) role. The story is, Howard Hughes made this movie made to discharge a whole lot of personal promised.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I can imagine worse fates than having Kim Raver forced down my throat.

Anonymous said...

I like Rachel Dratch. I liked her on SNL and King of QUeens. I also enjoy her visits on Andy Cohen's show. She makes me laugh.Janice B

Andrew Masset said...

Unless u have great TV 'Q'..or a body of work with the execs, or are a 'rising star'..Go play golf and forget about it...The days when talent was important are over...

Stephen Robinson said...

I was writing TV reviews when 30 ROCK debuted. My press screener was the Dratch pilot. Regretably, I misplaced the DVD by the time I realized it was unique (much of it was reshot to unclude Jane K.)

I like Jane Krakowski, but I think the show lost something by going with her instead of Dratch. I think we could have seen a true female friendship on the show (one similar to Fey and Dratch) as the network (Baldwin) "maled up" the show with Tracy Jordan. Instead, Jenna was depicted as a scatterbrained narcissistic kook incapable of real friendship.

The comment about Dratch not being believable as the star of a TV series might be valid, but I think a Julia Louis Dreyfus type actress would have been a better choice. Julia is gorgeous, but she can also convincly play a "normal" woman (much of Elaine's appeal).

Anonymous said...

Following a few details from her wikipedia page indicates Kim Raver's family has serious social connections, Kim went to an exclusive boarding school, family shown in society columns in the Hamptons, has an aunt writing for the NY Times, either her step-father or step brother seems to be a movie producer etc. So its as likely as not this is what helped open doors for her as opposed to necessarily doing sexual favors for people and whatnot as some here seem to be suggesting.

And I used to watch her in the show Third Watch. She wasn't phenomenal but she was OK. There are probably a lot of socially connected aspiring actresses out there who are a lot less talented.

michaleen said...

It might be face-saving, but I believe Tina Fey explained the switch as a consequence of a shift in the show's structure. Originally, there was going to be a lot of show-within-a-show stuff where we'd see the "aired" versions of TGS sketches. That would have required someone versatile enough to play both the actor and all of the parts played by the actor in TGS sketches.

The show evolved into more of a standard workplace sitcom. Most glimpses of the sketches were quick, one-shot jokes. Without the need to play the sketch parts, Dratch's SNL skills weren't required and a standard workplace sitcom made a standard casting decision.

Rob Larkin said...

In his Television Archive interview, Jamie Farr tells his own funny tale of all the casting auditions he had to go through for a show that eventually never made it to the air where he was to play himself. He had to read for the producer; then the producer and the writers; next the producer, the writers and the stars; and finally the head of the network and the network committee. At least he was able to laugh about the casting experience: "I don't know where our business is going...or where it went".

Jeff Maxwell said...

I swear every word is true:

I made it to the network audition for a pilot starring Redd Foxx. The part was a cross-dressing customer who regularly eats a diner owned by Redd. I was at the network dressed as a woman when a boy of about 10 walks over and asks if I'm nervous. He was there auditioning for the part of a boy Redd adopts or inherits or buys or something.

I say I'm a little nervous and ask the same of him. He says he is because he's really a girl. Huh? I say. He/she explains that her agent sent her in for the part of a little boy as a joke early on, but she was so convincing that nobody caught it, and she made it all the way to the network. I was gobsmacked, and then they called me in.

My agent called to say that I got the part. And then the producer called to tell me that my part had to be written out because the little boy I talked to got the part of the little boy, but he was really a little girl, and the network thought there was something to what she did they could use in the show, so they wanted the adult cross-dressing character written out because they had a better gender confusing idea with the little girl/boy.

It was an awful idea, but they did it, and it was terrible, and the show was not funny. Redd Foxx was a very nice man.

Jeff Maxwell said...

sorry..."regularly eats AT a diner"... It wasn't a about Godzilla.

Cap'n Bob said...

Jeff Maxwell, where did they get the chow they served at the MASH mess hall? I'll ask Ken if you don't see this question.

Andrew said...

I always wondered about some of the casting choices on Law and Order, especially the female DA's. Some of them were genuinely good actresses, but others were clearly eye candy without corresponding talent. Elizabeth Rohm couldn't act herself out of a wet paper bag. While critiquing actors is subjective, some are so obviously bad that it begs the question of why they were given preference over hundreds of better qualified actors.

Michael from Belfast said...

A bit of a cheap shot, Ken, to refer to an “obvious reason” that Jane Krakowski was cast in 30 Rock beside a picture of her in a revealing dress. She was terrific in that show. She was nominated for dozens of awards in the role, including the Best Supporting Actress Emmy four times. You even said as much yourself in a post on this blog from September 25 2008:

“I must say I was against that move at first, and still feel Rachel would have been good, but Jane has pleasantly surprised me with how funny and talented she is.”

Jeff Maxwell said...

"Jeff Maxwell, where did they get the chow they served at the MASH mess hall? I'll ask Ken if you don't see this question."

Cap'n Bob...

All the mess tent chow originated in the Fox commissary. Contrary to its repulsive reputation, the food was actually quite edible...if you liked creamed weenies.

MikeN said...

>Oddly enough, I now want to see John Stamos as Tony Soprano.

Original plan was to have Frank Sinatra as The Godfather.
People think it is a joke now, but I think it might have made the movie better.

Jabroniville said...

Haha- I go on vacation for three weeks and discover that Ken has answered my Friday Question! Thanks, Ken! Sorry I wasn't here to see it!

Jabroniville said...

Haha- wow! I go on vacation for three weeks, and come back to find that Ken answered my question! Thanks Ken- sorry I didn't see it till now.

Very interesting stuff, and I get the feeling that the "Behind The Scenes" stories about TV shows are actually more interesting than the shows themselves sometimes. ESPECIALLY the bad shows ("well, we didn't want this actress for the role, but someone at the network wanted to fuck her, so...").

The whole "Everyone must be attractive" rule has really changed things- it used to just be the women (and even THEN you'd find Rhea Pearlman-types in recurring roles, or Elaine inthe early Seinfeld seasons being kept deliberately-plainer than she really was), but I've watched shows like Workaholics where the nerdy, lazy, unkempt characters take their shirts off, and reveal muscular, toned bodies. Ridiculous.

I can't imagine how many potentially-great shows were ruined because "the network" forced a bad bunch of actors on the producers.

-Grant Woolsey