Why movie stars don't always dazzle us on TV

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 11:52 p.m.
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James Woods stars as Sebastian Stark, a charismatic, supremely self confident attorney who, after a shocking outcome in one of his cases and a personal epiphany, brings his cutthroat tactics to the prosecutor's office, in SHARK on CBS.

Television networks presumably spend many dollars enticing movie stars to series TV, as CBS is doing with James Woods in "Shark" or Virginia Madsen and Ray Liotta in "Smith."
Which makes it kind of funny, really, that if all goes according to plan, what they get is a TV star.
What's the difference? Well, a movie star is bigger. Physically bigger. Put Julia Roberts or Johnny Depp on a movie screen - even in today's shrinking theaters - and they fill the room. Serve up the same production on a television screen and it's not the same.
"Titanic" on TV is not "Titanic" in a movie theater. Sorry. It just isn't.
Television producers know this. They don't think 32-inch TV screens suddenly become 200-inch screens just because James Woods appears on them.
No, the primary value of movie stars is that they can get someone's attention.
Every year networks receive hundreds of proposals for TV shows. One that includes Whoopi Goldberg wafts to the top of the pile. If it gets produced, viewers are more likely to sample it.
Those are not insignificant considerations. But they pretty much exhaust the extra value from hiring a movie star - because the truth is that TV viewers don't demand movie stars. They're perfectly happy with who they have.
"Desperate Housewives," "CSI," "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Sopranos" don't need Denzel Washington or Nicole Kidman. They're winners already, and if they weren't, Denzel couldn't save them.
OK, it's possible that if Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep signed for a remake of "Married . . . With Children," they could hold an audience on star power alone. But that's not a lock.
If "West Wing" had tried to sell itself as Martin Sheen-and-friends, it wouldn't have lasted a season. It scored because it made TV actors as important and interesting as he was.
After a week, two at most, the novelty of seeing a movie star on TV wears off and the show has to walk on its own.
The presence of Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland got last year's ABC series "Commander in Chief" a lot of attention out of the gate, and the fact viewers stayed for a few weeks suggested they liked what they saw.
But then the creator was fired, the show lost its way and that was that - even though Davis and Sutherland were as good at the end of the series as they were at the start.
The point isn't that movie stars don't belong on television. Woods does a splendid job as Shark, Liotta is an intriguing con man. But neither is more compelling on TV than, say, Andre Braugher or Dennis Franz.
No, TV is the great leveler. Whether you come in as a high-ticket movie star or a construction worker who got picked for "Survivor," television is the place where one size fits all.

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