How To Make A Hit TV Show

The TV industry is a difficult and fickle one, and making a hit is an elusive craft. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it all boils down to a mix of a good idea, script, cast and production, but even they aren’t guarantees that a show will be popular. Instead, successful TV is often marked by a mix of common quirks as hard to explain as it is to manufacture, and clever choices with the cards they’re dealt. But whether it’s genetics or gumption, some of the most prodigiously successful pieces of television ever made have scratched their initials onto these rite of passage pillars:

Give an auditioning actor another part apart from the part they went for:

Successful TV shows have always managed to accommodate talented actors in ways they didn’t initially intend. McLean Stevenson auditioned for the role of Hawkeye Pierce before becoming Henry Blake in M*A*S*H*, the last episode of which garnered the biggest audience in history. Michael Rispoli auditioned to be Tony Soprano but was made Jackie Asprile Senior instead. January Jones attempted to become Don Draper’s assistant Peggy Olson in Mad Men before being promoted to wife duties. Kristin Davis of Sex And The City could have made Carrie Bradshaw much less equine. Sarah Michelle Geller and Charisma Carpenter originally auditioned for each other’s eventual roles in Buffy. Courtney Cox was originally asked to play Rachel in Friends before becoming Monica. And John Ratzenberger aimed to sit at the edge of the barstool as Norm Peterson at Cheers, except he was the subject of another successful TV phenomenon.

Create a character for someone:

Having struck out as Norm, Ratzeneberger resolved to bug the producers of Cheers with inane chatter to the point where they made Cliff Claven on the spot based on his tirade. When a good deal of those same producers spun off and created Frasier, casting director Sheila Guthrie brought to their attention a photo of the actor David Hyde Pierce, who she considered to be a dead ringer for a young Kelsey Grammer. They created Niles Crane largely on the strength of that photo. Steve Van Zandt, headhunted by David Chase for a role in The Sopranos, was so concerned about bumping another actor out of a role that Silvio Dante was created specifically for him.

Promote a bit player to the big leagues:

The most successful shows habitually have minor characters come to life on screen that didn’t exactly jump off the page. M*A*S*H*’s Corporal Klinger was intended to be little more than a one episode gag but made enough of an impression that he was there until the final episode. Lilith Sternin was meant to be a Frasier Crane one-date-wonder but ended up becoming his wife, while The West Wing’s Donna Moss was only intended to be a recurring guest, but her chemistry with Josh sealed her fate as one of the more popular members of the cast throughout its run. And 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell is nigh on the dictionary definition of a break out character.

Replacing characters wisely:

A good way of determining the TV wheat from the chaff is how they handle the departure of a pivotal character. Do you remember for instance who replaced Eric in That Seventies Show? Of course you don’t. The guy who played him probably doesn’t even remember. The best approach to take is go for a character wildly divergent from the last one: In M*A*S*H* the inept busybody Frank Burns was replaced by the brilliant blueblood Major Winchester and the hapless Colonel Blake by the much more together Colonel Potter, and in Cheers the passing of old timer The Coach made young Woody Harrelson a household name. Other shows practically made a habit of constantly getting in/shipping out new stars, just to show off. The West Wing disposed of Mandy Hampton and Sam Seaborn without breaking a sweat. Between them LA Law and ER had an ensemble cast larger longer than the extras lunch queues on the set of Gandhi, but they both managed nearly a quarter of a century between them. The show runner of the former, David E Kelley, got so used to bringing big characters in and out that on his most recent success, Boston Legal, he regularly disposed of senior cast members without the slightest explanation. And he got away with it too. Now that’s a sign of success.