Kiefer Sutherland Saved the World on 24, but Can He Rescue ABC?

Actor returns to TV in fall’s most anticipated new show

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In May, media buyers and advertisers filing into ABC's upfront presentation at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall in New York were eager to see what the network's new entertainment president Channing Dungey had in store her first time on stage. Instead, it was ABC's other new president who stole the show. Near the end of the event, Kiefer Sutherland took the stage to discuss Designated Survivor, his new political drama for the network in which he plays the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who suddenly becomes president after an attack on the U.S. Capitol kills everyone ahead of him in the presidential line of succession. "I could go on and tell you about the story points of the script, but I promise you, it's much better watching it," Sutherland told the crowd. Then, instead of playing a standard upfront trailer, the network did something unexpected, airing the drama's entire, riveting first act. The last time ABC played something longer than a trailer for upfront audiences was seven years ago when it showed the full pilot of a little show called Modern Family, which went on to become one of TV's biggest hits.

Designated Survivor is a "top priority" for the network this fall. Randall Slavin

"Bringing Kiefer out as the true highlight really helped to showcase the show and show how important it is to us," says Marla Provencio, evp, marketing and CMO at ABC Entertainment. The network's upfront gamble paid off. The audience was captivated by the footage and charmed by Sutherland, and Designated Survivor immediately became one of fall's most anticipated freshman series. "I am keenly aware of how incredibly supportive they have been in trying to get this show out of the box," Sutherland says of ABC.


With Designated Survivor set to debut Sept. 21, the excitement has only intensified among those who eagerly await Sutherland's return to television after nine seasons (including the 2014 limited series revival) as CTU agent Jack Bauer on Fox's 24. As the biggest star of all this fall's freshman series, the actor also represents ABC's best hope to bounce back from last season's fourth-place finish in the 18-49 demo. (He's also an executive producer on 24: Legacy, Fox's Bauer-free 24 reboot that involves a new group of characters at CTU and will launch after the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.)

Sam Armando, lead investment director at Mediavest | Spark, says putting together a hit show is like completing a puzzle, "and you need all these pieces to kind of fit for success." Designated Survivor, he notes, boasts Sutherland's star power, a relatable premise about an Everyman thrust into an extraordinary situation and propulsive storylines. "All those pieces come together very nicely, so you think it would be successful," says Armando.

Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer at Initiative, agrees that the combination of Sutherland's presence and timely political intrigue "got people to lean in, which is something you can't say about a lot of programs [this fall]. And Kiefer is a big component of its success because people have been looking forward to seeing him again on TV ever since 24 went off."

For a time, that included Sutherland himself, who, after wrapping 24: Live Another Day in 2014, poured his energy into developing a new series that never came together. That disappointment, coupled with the fact that "the other stuff I had read just wasn't interesting to me," caused Sutherland to turn his attention away from TV. Until, that is, the Designated Survivor script came his way last year.

Sutherland was hooked by its political setting ("I'm fascinated about how anything has ever gotten done in this country because it's set up to really not do very much," says the Canadian actor) and the "extraordinary" concept of rebuilding a government from scratch. "The federal government can operate without a Congress, but it can't move forward," he observes. "So there's a real urgency, and any time there's a timetable, it becomes dramatic."

Of course, Sutherland knows from dramatic timetables, after nine seasons literally racing against time on 24. While the actor calls that series "the greatest experience of my career," he admits that because of the show's Bauer-centric conceit, "we would paint ourselves into a corner sometimes, usually around Episode 16." But given the three separate sources of rich storylines built into Designated Survivor's DNA—the political element, the investigative thriller (Who's behind the attack?) and a family drama—"the playing field is just that much bigger," he adds.

Still, Sutherland had some essential suggestions for series creator David Guggenheim. One was making his character Tom Kirkman, an independent politically, reinforcing his outsider and underdog status, which, Guggenheim says, "allows us then to explore issues from all points of view. We don't want the show to be a red state show or a blue state show." The actor also suggested that Kirkman wear glasses, which, Sutherland explains, was "visually significant" in detailing the character's transformation into the presidential role.

Dungey, who at the time was still heading up ABC's drama development, knew the show had a "great script," but she was also impressed by Sutherland's enthusiasm from the start. "He spoke so passionately about his vision for the character and for the series," she recalls. "When you hear that, it's easy to make a big bet." With Sutherland on board, then-ABC chief Paul Lee gave the show a rare straight-to-series pickup last December. But just two months later, Lee was out as president, replaced by Dungey. Sutherland said he didn't think of jumping ship, despite the sudden change atop the network. "Contracts were signed; it is what it is," he says. "It would have been a very costly no."

Months later, as Dungey prepped for her first upfront and watched the completed Designated Survivor pilot, she realized just how special it was. "She really understood what she had in her hands in terms of this feeling like a true blockbuster," says Provencio. The ABC president says she felt the upfront audience needed to see more than just a trailer, which wouldn't "convey the emotional impact of what this journey is going to mean to this character."

ABC's dedication to making the series the hit it desperately needs ("It is a very, very big show for us," says Provencio) continued through the summer with an aggressive marketing campaign centered around Sutherland (see below). The actor, in turn, has gone above and beyond the efforts of most ABC talent in his own promotional efforts, gamely supplying each of the network's affiliate stations with personalized shoutouts. As Provencio points out, "Everything that we've asked him to do for us, he's been happy to do."

Landing Sutherland in this era of peak TV, when so many major stars opt for shorter-season commitments on cable or streaming services, was a serious coup for ABC. "There are not that many actors of Kiefer's stature that want to do network television," says the show's executive producer Mark Gordon. But Sutherland says he remains committed to broadcast because of its ability to reach more eyeballs than any other television outlet.

Sutherland has gone above and beyond to promote the show. Randall Slavin

After Sutherland broke out in iconic '80s films like Stand By Me and The Lost Boys, his standing in Hollywood faded until 24 turned him into a bigger star than ever. (However, his 24 follow-up, the Fox drama Touch, lasted just two seasons.) At its peak, 24 drew 15 million viewers every week, roughly the equivalent of $150 million at the box office given the average $10 cost of a movie ticket.

"Well, I never made a movie that made 150 million bucks, and you did this in one night? That's a serious deal to me," says Sutherland. "There is a rush that you get when you're making something if you realize that many people are waiting to see it. Trust me, I've made shows and films that I was very proud of that no one saw. There's nothing fulfilling about that at all. I want to know that whatever was having an impact on me when I read it and then actually played it was ultimately going to have an impact on someone else."

As he attempts to repeat that with Designated Survivor, Sutherland is well aware he is making a fictional series about the presidency at a time when the real-life American presidential election has become more outlandish than anything a Hollywood writer could ever dream up. "In television or films, the nature of the writing is, how far can we push it? This might be the one time in my lifetime where the reality is, how far do you think we can pull it back?" he says. But as his show's characters work to get the government up and running again, "you're going to see more cooperation on a political level, on a national/federal stage in the context of our show, than you certainly might for quite some time," the actor notes. "It might be encouraging."

On the show's Toronto set, Sutherland also works behind the scenes as an executive producer, a role he also had during the latter part of 24's run. He functions as a sounding board for his co-stars and guest actors, and as a self-described advocate for the crew. "I am a very firm believer that anything after 12 hours becomes counterproductive," says Sutherland, who is applying the techniques he learned on 24 where the production team operated more efficiently to compensate for the time- and labor-intensive action sequences. "If you can figure out how to do it between 10 and 12 hours, the crew is happier, the work gets better. You just become inherently more productive, and it saves you money."

After 24 turned him into a huge TV star in the early '00s, Sutherland took advantage of his return to the spotlight by signing on for a slew of voiceover offers that came his way, appearing in commercials for brands like Verizon, Bank of America and a local New York radio station. "I probably didn't think that through very well and maybe should have been a little more selective," he says. "When something is working, it's an exciting thing, and if you've had a long enough career where you've gone through a 10-year period where things weren't working, you just take advantage of it."

If such opportunities come his way again as a result of Designated Survivor, Sutherland suggests that he'll be less likely to pursue them. Instead, he will restrict himself to a single voiceover gig ("I would be really specific and the brand would matter to me," he says). Meanwhile, a video ad "would have to be either a very funny campaign or it would have to be for something that I think is really cool or important."

Sutherland exercised the same caution after the 2014 success of 24: Live Another Day (which sparked the limited series revival of other past hits like The X-Files, Heroes and the upcoming Prison Break), even as Fox was eager for another 24 installment. Sutherland resisted, believing the show would be breaking its promise to fans. "The whole hook to get an audience back to watch it was, this is a onetime deal, so you should watch it—and then, when it worked out for us, go, oh, we decided to do another one? I don't think that's right," he says. "And how many bad days can one guy have before it starts to look stupid? Probably about seven, but we did nine!"

"We love Kiefer so much. If he had wanted to do 24, we would have done a Jack Bauer version of it," confirms Gary Newman, co-CEO and co-chairman, Fox Television Group. "But he felt it was time to rest that character." Instead, Fox pursued a new iteration of the show, sans Jack Bauer. Sutherland, who had maintained for years that the franchise could and should continue on without him ("The truth is, I've always believed that the star of that show was the idea of putting a time restriction on it," he explains), still remained involved in the process, serving as a "sounding board" for executive producer Howard Gordon as he brainstormed story ideas for what would become 24: Legacy.

Given his collaboration with Gordon, Fox asked Sutherland to sign on to 24: Legacy as an executive producer, which Sutherland says he was honored to do. While the actor says he's "not directly involved in" the new series beyond broad story discussions, Fox's Newman maintains that having the actor on board in some capacity was important to the network. "Hopefully, it sends a message to the fans that this is not disloyal to Kiefer, and that they're able to embrace this new cast," he says.

Sutherland's decision to pass on another season of 24 doesn't mean we've seen the last of Jack Bauer, however. "I know never to say that. It doesn't mean that we can't make the [long-in-the-works 24] film," says Sutherland. "It's a character that I love until the day I die." Gordon publicly expressed hope earlier this year that Sutherland would make an appearance on 24: Legacy, but Sutherland clarifies that "there is absolutely no plan" for that. If he does ever return as Bauer, Sutherland vows, "it will not ever be a series again."

But the actor did agree to revisit another of his famous projects earlier this year, appearing in a sequel to the 1990 sci-fi hit Flatliners, due out next summer. Other then confirming that he plays the same character, Nelson Wright, Sutherland says he can't say much about his involvement in the film "because it's part of the storyline."

The star would rather discuss his new side career as a country songwriter and musician. Last month he released his first album, Down in a Hole, full of "very personal" songs (he's already working on a follow-up), and earlier this year he toured more than 70 cities in North America, playing bars and small clubs. "I'm completely aware of the stigma attached to an actor doing music," allows Sutherland, who will resume touring during the holiday hiatus of Designated Survivor. "But the truth is, I enjoyed recording them so much, and I was very proud of the songs. And I've hit an age where if you're going to make fun of me, I really don't give a shit. I'm not trying to sell a million records."

While Sutherland hopes to spend the better part of the next decade making Designated Survivor ("There's potentially two election cycles—that's eight years," he notes), no matter what happens, he would like to follow in the footsteps of his father Donald, whose acting career is still going strong at the age of 81. "It's all I know. It's the one thing anybody ever told me I was good at my whole life," Sutherland says. "It would be a very sad day for me if someone came to me and said, you're not allowed to do this anymore."

Of course, if Designated Survivor does, in fact, become a hit this fall, that's not something he'll have to worry about for a while.

This story first appeared in the September 19, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.