Pity the struggling young actor. The competition this year for a big break on network TV is stiffer than ever, as pilots angling for spots in the fall lineup have enough familiar faces to pack an I Love the '90s (or even the '80s) marathon on VH1.Lara Flynn Boyle, Kristin Davis, David Boreanaz, Brooke Shields, Peri Gilpin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Fred Savage, Don Johnson, Benjamin Bratt and Dylan McDermott are among the dozens of prime-time favorites cast in prospective shows that network execs hope will turn into the next Desperate Housewives or Lost.
And they're being joined by other stars better known for their work outside of TV — including Chris O'Donnell, Dennis Hopper, Ellen Burstyn, Tom Berenger and Aidan Quinn.Networks desperate for a ratings hit are more willing to pay up for stars who can give a show an edge, but that's no guarantee of success. (Remember NBC's LAX with Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood?) "It's not like they want a 'so-and-so' type," one TV studio executive says. "They want that person in every role." And in many cases, they can get what they want. The reason? Right now, TV is where the jobs are. "The movie business is shrinking," says former Fox entertainment president Gail Berman. These days, big-screen opportunities tend to be high-budget blockbusters for A-list stars, or independent films with salaries that barely pay the bills, with not much in between. "There just aren't as many mid-level movies being made," says NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. "It's forced a lot of the acting pool to say, 'If I want to work, TV is a viable alternative.'" The current quality of TV drama has made the move to prime time an easier sell to stars, according to Scott Henderson of the William Morris Agency. "The writing now on series television is better than ever," he says. So much for the old industry adage that stars don't make hit TV shows, it's TV that makes stars. Says one veteran network executive, "It makes you wonder what Friends would have looked like if they cast it today."