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Old February 28 2012, 06:26 AM   #1
Andonagio
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How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

It's not uncommon for a show to have breakout characters (Fonzie, Urkel, Sheldon, Bender, Stewie, etc.), and when that happens, we start to see a lot more of them. But why is that?

In other words, what goes on behind the scenes when a breakout character becomes apparent? Are the writers handed down an edict from the studio that says "Give us more Sheldon/Stewie/Urkel/etc.-heavy episodes, or you're all fired"? Do the writers suddenly discover that their breakout characters are easier to write for than the other characters? Do episodes that heavily feature breakout characters really generate better reviews and ratings than episodes where they're relegated to the background, or is that just a myth?

Thoughts? I'd especially appreciate any insight from folks familiar with studio politics.
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Old February 28 2012, 07:43 AM   #2
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

That's a really interesting question. I'd imagine it was some combination of the above, but especially studios saying "this generates better ratings, write more of this into the show." (especially when actors' salaries start to be raised). There might also be the subconscious starting to focus on the characters within the writing staff because that's the one they get the most feedback about in general/from the public. And there's probably also the fact that often the breakout character is probably one the writers have the most fun writing/are proudest of, because they are the most unique or quirkiest in some way.

That's just speculation, though, I'd be interested to know the true answer.
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Old February 28 2012, 04:36 PM   #3
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

I also wonder if it has something to do with star power. I know there have been cases where the actors/voice actors who play the breakout characters have been able to use their star power to have greater script input and (occasionally) push for more screen time. (I remember Piller saying that they had to pay close attention to Stewart's and Spiner's inputs on the script for Insurrection for this very reason.)
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Old February 28 2012, 05:38 PM   #4
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

It has to do with what the people want to see. Happy Days was headed for "one and done" until the audience suddenly sparked to a supporting character named the Fonz. And the only thing that stopped the show from being renamed from Happy Days to The Fonzie Show (seriously, that was a plan - though I might have the title wrong) was Ron Howard and the others balked. Plus Pratt & McClain scored a hit with the Happy Days theme song so the name recognition was established. They did do a Fonz and the Happy Days Gang cartoon, though.

It's not a case of a character being "easier" to write. I'm sure there are more than a few TV writers out there who hated seeing a show "hijacked" by a character they may not have particularly liked. But if it's a matter of tailoring a show to what the audience wants to see and seeing a series head out the door after 13 episodes, it's an easy choice.

Of course as a series matures, the whole "star power" thing comes into play and you start to see things like actors getting producer credits and the like. And if a show becomes too identified with one character you run the risk of the show collapsing if that actor leaves. The jury is still out, big-time, as to whether Star Trek Phase II would have actually worked without Leonard Nimoy. More recently, CSI, while not collapsing, necessarily, has been struggling to find its way since its breakout character, Grissom, was written out. In rare cases the whole cast qualifies as breakout, which is the case with NCIS - watch that show to end very quickly if any of the core cast leaves.

Even the unique case of Doctor Who runs that risk. Although it's a myth that the series collapsed after Tom Baker left (the ratings remained strong for several years after), the series never recovered from Baker's departure because he had become so internationally popular as the Doctor. More recently the departure of David Tennant created the same problems when Matt Smith took over, and although Smith is doing well, and the series remains popular worldwide, you still find people who are able to spin the numbers to claim the series has faded since Tennant left.

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Old February 28 2012, 06:26 PM   #5
Andonagio
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

I can understand a show losing ratings if a star player leaves, but how much would a show's ratings suffer if the writers made a conscious effort to ensure that the breakout characters had the same balance of screen time as the other characters?

For example, would Family Guy's ratings suffer if McFarlane decided to have fewer Brian/Stewie-heavy episodes and more Meg/Chris-heavy episodes? Would Big Bang Theory start losing viewers if Sheldon only had 2 - 3 minutes of screen time in, say, 40% of each season's episodes?

I guess it's a delicate balance that writers have to achieve, and they'll tend to err on the side of what they think will generate more ratings. That's disappointing, as I always imagined most TV writers to be more interested in the artistic merit of the show than in its ratings (a la Bill Watterson).

In addition, I'm not used to the idea of tuning into a show to see a particular character. In my mind, viewers either like the show as a whole (ensemble cast and all) or not at all. But then, Voyager's ratings did improve after they brought in Seven of Nine and made her the focus of many episodes...
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Old February 28 2012, 11:35 PM   #6
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

Two words: Steve Urkel. Family Matters was one tv show where this took place. He was only supposed to be a part time character and in the end became a big part of the show itself.

Iirc, that affected the show to a degree. Some of the actors and such got jealous and that kind of thing. At the end of the day though, the show didn't get ruined because of it.

Andonagio wrote: View Post
I can understand a show losing ratings if a star player leaves, but how much would a show's ratings suffer if the writers made a conscious effort to ensure that the breakout characters had the same balance of screen time as the other characters?

For example, would Family Guy's ratings suffer if McFarlane decided to have fewer Brian/Stewie-heavy episodes and more Meg/Chris-heavy episodes? Would Big Bang Theory start losing viewers if Sheldon only had 2 - 3 minutes of screen time in, say, 40% of each season's episodes?

I guess it's a delicate balance that writers have to achieve, and they'll tend to err on the side of what they think will generate more ratings. That's disappointing, as I always imagined most TV writers to be more interested in the artistic merit of the show than in its ratings (a la Bill Watterson).

In addition, I'm not used to the idea of tuning into a show to see a particular character. In my mind, viewers either like the show as a whole (ensemble cast and all) or not at all. But then, Voyager's ratings did improve after they brought in Seven of Nine and made her the focus of many episodes...
That happened with The X-Files, when David Duchovny left. It kind of stunk that not a lot of people gave Robert Patrick (and Annabeth Gish) a chance once he was gone (and Scully wasn't on the show as much). They weren't bad actors or bad characters.

Heck back in the day, I kind of got tired of the original actors and would have loved to have seen Doggett and Reyes continue on the X-Files, even if it would have only been for one more season. It would have been refreshing .

Now I'm cool with it -- and would love to see M & S along with Doggett and Reyes working together to save the world in a third X-Files movie, if there is one.

Yep. I don't envy them the job that they have to do. Bring in the new characters without alienating the old fans.
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Old February 29 2012, 01:19 AM   #7
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

Andonagio wrote: View Post
In other words, what goes on behind the scenes when a breakout character becomes apparent? Are the writers handed down an edict from the studio that says "Give us more Sheldon/Stewie/Urkel/etc.-heavy episodes, or you're all fired"?
Well, not "you're all fired," but something like that did happen in the case of the guy on the left in your avatar. Spock was the breakout star of TOS, receiving vastly more fan mail than any other actor (maybe even all the rest put together, but I don't know), and so the network wanted the producers to play up Spock as much as possible. (This is why both seasons 2 and 3 opened with Spock-centric episodes.) But Roddenberry resisted, because he saw Kirk as the star of the show, and Shatner certainly did too. It led to ongoing tension and competition between the two leads, with Roddenberry caught in the middle. Reportedly it was Isaac Asimov who suggested to GR that the key was to play up the Kirk-Spock friendship, to make them inseparable, so that Kirk wouldn't be left behind in the push to keep Spock front and center.


Do the writers suddenly discover that their breakout characters are easier to write for than the other characters?
I doubt that, but it might somewhat be the other way around -- they may discover that a character is easier to tell interesting and engaging stories about than they expected, or that the character takes on a life of his/her own and begins to steal the show just because there's so much potential there. Garak on DS9 is probably a case in point.

Some years back, I had a couple of opportunities to pitch episode ideas to Star Trek: Voyager, including a pitch for the fifth season. When I was trying to come up with proposals for episodes, I started out with the goal of avoiding Seven stories and Doctor stories, because I figured everyone would be pitching stories about them already so maybe my chances would be better if I offered an alternative by focusing on the rest of the cast. But I discovered that was easier said than done, because there were just so very, very many story possibilities just spilling out of Seven and the Doctor, whereas it was harder to find interesting possibilities for the rest of the cast. After all, most of the crew had either been well-adjusted to start with or had resolved their major issues and conflicts before then; but Seven and the Doctor were both relatively new individuals who still had a lot of learning and growing to do, and both outsiders and misfits who could be sources of conflict more easily than most of the others. So I would say they were easier to write for, in the sense that it was easier to find intriguing and dramatic stories to tell about them, to find new layers of them that could be peeled back to reveal story possibilities. (Although actually writing those rich and interesting stories might have been more challenging and emotionally draining than writing some dull "Harry gets an alien virus" story or something. Good writing is never easy.)


Do episodes that heavily feature breakout characters really generate better reviews and ratings than episodes where they're relegated to the background, or is that just a myth?
I don't know about reviews, but breakout characters are by definition highly popular with the viewers, so it stands to reason that increasing the focus on them would increase ratings (as long as the character is handled in a way that the audience still responds to, I suppose, although actor charisma has a lot to do with it).
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Old February 29 2012, 11:16 PM   #8
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

Christopher wrote: View Post
Andonagio wrote: View Post
In other words, what goes on behind the scenes when a breakout character becomes apparent? Are the writers handed down an edict from the studio that says "Give us more Sheldon/Stewie/Urkel/etc.-heavy episodes, or you're all fired"?
Well, not "you're all fired," but something like that did happen in the case of the guy on the left in your avatar. Spock was the breakout star of TOS, receiving vastly more fan mail than any other actor (maybe even all the rest put together, but I don't know), and so the network wanted the producers to play up Spock as much as possible. (This is why both seasons 2 and 3 opened with Spock-centric episodes.) But Roddenberry resisted, because he saw Kirk as the star of the show, and Shatner certainly did too. It led to ongoing tension and competition between the two leads, with Roddenberry caught in the middle. Reportedly it was Isaac Asimov who suggested to GR that the key was to play up the Kirk-Spock friendship, to make them inseparable, so that Kirk wouldn't be left behind in the push to keep Spock front and center.
.

You might remember better than I can, but I seem to recall reading in one of the old "making-of" books that NBC originally told them to keep Spock's character, not in the background, but not pushing him to the forefront either (devil ears and all that). Then, after several episodes of the first season aired, and fans began reacting so positively to Spock (fan mail and such) that NBC came back to the production crew and asked why they weren't showing Spock more, and they showed the studio rep the original memo telling them to hold him back. Do you recall reading that anywhere?
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Old February 29 2012, 11:34 PM   #9
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

I've always thought of Sheldon as a lead character in TBB rather than a supporting character who "broke out" like Fonzie.
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Old February 29 2012, 11:52 PM   #10
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

TBBT started out being more about the will they/won't they Leonard and Penny story but shifted (rather violently I thought) to being more about Sheldon in season three. Hell, when Leonard and Penny broke up it was because of Sheldon's rivalry with Wil Wheaton, and the episode after focused on how the break up affected Sheldon.
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Old March 1 2012, 12:19 AM   #11
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

23skidoo wrote: View Post
In rare cases the whole cast qualifies as breakout, which is the case with NCIS - watch that show to end very quickly if any of the core cast leaves.
I disagree that NCIS would collapse if 'any' of the core cast left. Sasha Alexander left after 2 seasons...and Lauren Holly left after being main cast for seasons 3 thru 5, replaced by Rocky Carroll, and in both cases, the show not only survived, but continued to pick up market share.

Now, I will agree that if Mark Harmon left, NCIS would have a serious problem and might not survive long. Not only because Gibbs is a hugely popular character and Mark Harmon a hugely popular actor...but also because the most interesting ongoing storylines involve Gibbs' extra-agency relationships, with his dad, Fornell, and especially Mike Franks.

Michael Weatherly, Cote de Pablo, or Pauley Perrette individually leaving might give the show a serious hit (Michael Weatherly is the chief source of comic relief, Cote de Pablo's departure would end the Mossad storyline, and Pauley Perrette would take the quirk factor with her)...although I doubt the show would collapse completely. Slightly less so for Sean Murray, David McCallum and Rocky Carroll - fans would certainly be sad...but I really doubt the show would collapse entirely should any of them leave.

If Mark Harmon called it a day...or if, say, 2 or 3 of the other main cast all left at the same time, then we'd be talking catastrophe. But I really cannot see the show ending 'very quickly' if, say, Sean Murray left. I like McGee...but I'm not gonna stop watching the rest of them, just because he leaves. No way. Especially given the fact that there is precious little else to watch on TV these days that is anywhere near this show's quality.
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Old March 1 2012, 12:28 AM   #12
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

Looking through the rest of the thread, I'm actually also sort of surprised that Michael Emerson's stint on LOST has not been mentioned. Talk about a break-out character! IIRC, the character of Ben Linus was scheduled for a 2 or 3 episode arc...but Emerson made the most of his piece...and the next thing we know, S3 of LOST became pretty much the Ben Linus show....and he remains one of the more popular characters in LOST mythology.

Now granted, the LOST writers were in much closer personal contact with the fans of the show than are your typical writer/producers...and between the fans loving Ben Linus...and the potential for mystery/ongoing mind-fuck that character held out, it was an easy decision to keep him on and write the hell out of him. But I think keeping Ben Linus around on LOST had less to do with studio politics and more to do with fan response and writing potential - not only for the individual character storyline...but for the entire show's storyline.
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Old March 1 2012, 12:31 AM   #13
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

Another example would be Dark Shadows. Barnabas was supposed to be just a temporary villain, but then the (previously lackluster) ratings took off and suddenly he was the star of the show. The show also softened his hard edges to make him more sympathetic and heroic.

In that case, I believe the reaction on the part of producers and writers was basically: "Thank God! We might not get cancelled. That darn vampire is saving our show!"
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Old March 1 2012, 12:42 AM   #14
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

milo bloom wrote: View Post
You might remember better than I can, but I seem to recall reading in one of the old "making-of" books that NBC originally told them to keep Spock's character, not in the background, but not pushing him to the forefront either (devil ears and all that). Then, after several episodes of the first season aired, and fans began reacting so positively to Spock (fan mail and such) that NBC came back to the production crew and asked why they weren't showing Spock more, and they showed the studio rep the original memo telling them to hold him back. Do you recall reading that anywhere?
I've heard that story (more or less) before, yes. At least the second part. Reportedly NBC wanted Spock dropped altogether, but Roddenberry fought to keep him. But yes, once he became the breakout star, NBC demanded more of him.
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Old March 1 2012, 12:54 AM   #15
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Re: How Do Breakout Character Affect a Show

Hurray for the vampires! Because Dark Shadows was not the last time the vampire character who started in a guest-starring role ended up being more popular than most of the original cast members. David Boreanaz and James Marsters will attest to that much!

I seriously doubt if Buffy The Vampire Slayer would have retained much interest without those two guys. I like Sarah Michelle Gellar...but Angel and Spike really made that show for me, during their respective tenures. In fact, if it wasn't for them, I probably could not have grabbed my remote fast enough, given how utterly annoying Nicholas Brendon/Zander was. I was watching an episode of Buffy last night...and WOW! He is even more annoying than I remember!
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