The nine regular members of Gossip Girl's cast dominated headlines this year; 90210's 10 stars scored legions of fans and the 14 actors and actresses of Desperate Housewives were, once again, water cooler conversation.
With a proliferation of options and a desperation for viewers, studio and network executives are relying on big casts to deliver hits. Though more actors can lead to higher production costs and publicity challenges, they also offer more opportunities to captivate--and retain--viewers, particularly on the small screen. And so the population boom continues, with several big casts boasting a banner year.
"When you're focusing on the same character episode after episode, year after year, by the time you get to 100 episodes, you've pretty much exhausted what you can do," says TV historian Tim Brooks, co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows. "Writers like [ensembles] because they give them a much broader palette to work on."
Having more characters--and thus more character interactions--to work with can be highly appealing for a show's producer looking to spice up week-to-week storylines. What's more, the larger casts mean creative teams are less dependent on a single actor, giving them the flexibility to write around things like pregnancies (Desperate Housewives' Marcia Cross), schedules (Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl) and departures (Criminal Minds' Mandy Patinkin).
Unlike a single-lead series, which can be a turn-off for viewers who don't like the character or his or her tale, ensembles offer variety for the audience as well. Take the CW's pop culture stalwart Gossip Girl. Don't care for the series' bad-girl-turned-good Serena van der Woodsen? Enjoy the poorly timed pairings of Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass or Nate Archibald and Jenny Humphrey instead. Even the characters' parents offer their own career dilemmas and dating mishaps.
The trend towards larger casts--whether they feature a single star and several supporting actors or a large cast of equally important characters--can be traced back to the 1970s hit The Mary Tyler Moore Show, according to TV historian Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. The long-running comedy featured a host of regular characters based in Mary Richards' newsroom, as well as those in and around her home. Moore's production company furthered the trend on the drama side with Hill Street Blues, a1980s series with a cast similarly large for its time.
Despite precedent and success, big casts with serialized storylines and subsequently limited repeat value fell out of favor at the turn of the century. With series like The West Wing serving as the exception, there was an emphasis on both cheap reality programming and close-ended, repeatable fare prime for early evening syndication slots during the decade-long period. And that remained the case until 2004, when serialized sensations Lost and Desperate Housewives catapulted to the top of the Nielsen charts.
In typical Hollywood form, imitators followed suit, and large cast serials found a way to justify their costs, succeeding both in ratings and ancillary markets like international and DVD sales. In fact, some viewers found they preferred to wait until these complex series were released on the latter so they could sort through and enjoy the various characters and storylines.
But revenue and ratings aside, Brooks argues the casting trend is a logical one because it reflects the way in which our culture has evolved. "This is the kind of non-nuclear family," he says, "the kind of work-place or task-based grouping of people that really matches the world that so many of us lives in today."