HOLLYWOOD -- 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 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 either have never seen before or recognize the face but don't know the name.
The matchmaking game that is casting has changed markedly over the past 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 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," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for Carat, a media-buying company. "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.' "
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 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 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," Fox's Shulman said, referring to the British comedic actor who stars as an American doctor in the drama "House." "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."
Fox is hoping to hit that jackpot again with Anthony Anderson, who is co-starring in "K-Ville" with Cole Hauser.
"I don't think that a name buys loyalty," Shulman said. "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 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."
ABC, which hired more known TV actors than its competitors for its new shows -- such as Dylan McDermott and Michael Vartan in "Big Shots," Lucy Liu in "Cashmere Mafia," Christina Applegate in "Samantha Be Good" and Angie Harmon in "Woman's Murder Club" -- cast relatively unknown actors Pace and Friel in "Pushing Daisies," probably the most talked-about show of the new season.
NBC's Marc Hirschfeld said his network decided to avoid TV stars this fall because of what it learned from the phenomenon of Oka and his portrayal of teleporter Hiro Nakamura. "One of the things that 'Heroes' demonstrated for us last year is America's appetite to discover and make its own stars," said Hirschfeld, NBC's executive vice president of casting. "I think that's where 'American Idol' is the perfect example of America wanting to be a part of the process as opposed to us giving them yet again a television star that they are already familiar with."
This fall, NBC hopes viewers fall in love with Zachary Levi, the star of "Chuck," who is already being called "geekalicious" and "adorkable." But Fox and CBS think they might have the new hottie on the block. Fox is counting on fans to refer to the star of "New Amsterdam" simply as "Nikolaj." CBS is hedging its bets on a vampire played by O'Loughlin on "Moonlight" to stand out.
For the CW, new faces are at a premium. The network targets 18- to 34-year-olds, and that group likes discovering new, young and hot celebrities more than any other demographic, said Lori Openden, senior vice president of casting.