Like you've never seen them before

There hasn’t been a lot of evidence of late that a “special guest star” can significantly boost a show’s ratings. Shows that regularly attract major guest-star coups, like 30 Rock and The Good Wife, see no obvious ratings bumps from them, and many of the most successful shows simply avoid ratings-grabbing stunt casting as being pointless (The Big Bang Theory, for example, usually sticks to guest stars with a science or sci-fi connection). I figured that it’s so easy to see stars whenever we want that there’s no particular novelty in seeing them do a sitcom or drama. However, this morning’s ratings indicate that it is still possible to get a real ratings goose from a guest star, or at least a particular type of guest star. Two and a Half Men, aka Ashton Kutcher’s Paycheck, had Miley Cyrus on last night; I didn’t watch the episode, but it was widely publicized as her first major role as a grown-up, sexy character. (There was that movie LOL, but nobody saw it.) And the ratings for the show went up a huge amount for that episode, particularly in the 18-49 demographic, which makes sense if you assume that some of her Hannah Montana fans have aged into that demographic.

The last time a piece of stunt casting worked that well, that I can recall, was Britney Spears on How I Met Your Mother. That was a long time ago, when How I Met Your Mother was not a show that had overstayed its welcome but a plucky little cult show on the bubble, and not particularly well-respected by its network. The Spears appearance, and the follow-up episode that brought her back, helped to ensure its renewal and turn it from a bubble show into one of the most popular comedies with young people.

What these two stunts have in common is that they featured young stars using the TV guest shot as the first stage in a career transition. With Spears, the transition was more dramatic: the promos were almost inviting us to check out the show to see if she’d finally turned things around and gotten her life back on track. With Cyrus, the invitation was to her fans (or former fans) to see her as she begins her transition away from teen roles. The extra interest in her appearance wasn’t just about seeing Miley Cyrus on TV – anybody can do that. It was about her fans seeing Miley Cyrus like they’ve never seen her before, and following the progress (so to speak) of her career. It’s a bit like the way TV movies of the week used to pull in ratings by hyping former child stars like Eve Plumb in mildly shocking material.

And that might be the key to a successful casting stunt. Getting a star is good, but it may not be enough; it’s been over 50 years since the late-night talk show made it a common, mundane occurrence to see big stars on the TV. But if the guest shot seems like an important part of the narrative that has grown around the star’s career – if it can be sold as a new stage in the stories we’ve been reading about that star’s life and work – then you might have something. I’m not sure if the magnitude of the star matters as much as the magnitude of the story. If a show needs to come up with a bit of stunt casting to improve its ratings for a week or two, and they have to choose between the biggest movie star in the world and a teen star taking on her first adult role, then they should pick the teen star. It’ll just be a bigger story, and the story will bring in the viewers.