Producers, Not Actors, Are the Stars of TV Networks’ Early Series Pickups

Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti are safer bets than most Hollywood A-listers

We're less than 72 hours from broadcast upfront week, and ahead of revealing their upcoming slates (NBC will be the first out of the gate, announcing its fall schedule on Sunday, followed by Monday morning's upfront), several of the networks have been making early series orders.

While little is known yet about these new shows outside of their network loglines—look for sizzle reels to pop up online by Monday, which will start to fill in the gaps—they're most notable for what they are lacking: the big-name actors that routinely headline series pickups.

Aside from Rob Lowe (Fox comedy The Grinder), John Stamos (Fox comedy Grandfathered) and the Muppets (who will star in an ABC revival from The Big Bang Theory co-creator, and Muppets alum, Bill Prady), the broadcast networks' early series pickups are surprisingly low on A-list wattage.

That's partly because two of the most star-studded new shows received straight-to-series orders long ago: NBC ordered the Jennifer Lopez drama Shades of Blue in February 2014 and picked up Eva Longoria's comedy, Telenovela, in January). But it also signals a major television power shift: the real TV stars are now the producers behind the camera, not the actors in front of it. 

Leading the powerhouse producers this time around is Greg Berlanti, who already has three shows on air (Arrow and The Flash on The CW, and NBC's The Mysteries of Laura). Three Berlanti-produced pilots have received series orders in the past week: Supergirl (CBS), drama Blindspot (NBC) and DC's Legends of Tomorrow, his Arrow/Flash spinoff for The CW. If NBC renews Laura—expect a decision later today—he'll have a whopping six series on air for 2015-2016.

Neck and neck with Berlanti is producer Dick Wolf. NBC picked up his Chicago Fire/Chicago P.D. spinoff Chicago Med and You the Jury, a reality court show, which gives him five series on that network next year (alongside Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: SVU).

Queen of TV—or at least, Thursday night TV—Shonda Rhimes also added to her three-show stable, as ABC has ordered drama The Catch, from her Shondaland production company. (She'll be an executive producer on that one.) And Julie Plec, who executive produces The Vampire Diaries and The Originals for The CW, will add a third series to her roster for that network: drama Cordon. 

While those producers have all been thriving on television, the networks have had a far rockier road with star vehicles. In the last two years, Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes, Will Arnett and Katherine Heigl all headlined projects that ultimately failed to move the ratings needle.

That's not to say that networks will stop casting big-name actors, nor should they.

Recent hits The Blacklist and How to Get Away With Murder would be nothing without their respective stars, James Spader and Viola Davis. But as this Upfront season has shown, networks now believe that in their quest to find a new hit series, the safer bet for success is on producers, not actors.