Why Online Shows Are Attracting Big Name Stars

Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes will appear on Amazon's fledgling scripted comedy 'Alpha House.'

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Cynthia Nixon, who will guest star in Amazon’s “Alpha House,” is the latest big name to appear in an online show.

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Thursday, Amazon announced that Cynthia Nixon, Wanda Sykes, Amy Sedaris and Julie White would be appearing in its upcoming comedy "Alpha House" as guest stars. The show, created by Garry Trudeau, stars A-lister John Goodman, along with Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos, who play four male senators living together in a Washington D.C. group home.

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Amazon's ability to gather such a big-name cast is certainly impressive, considering "Alpha House" is among the first batch of original programming that the online company will be rolling out starting in late 2013. However, the casting news suggests that online distribution companies may be the new hot destination for big name actors and actresses, thanks in large part to Netflix's success with "House of Cards," "Arrested Development" and "Orange Is the New Black."

"I think now a lot of the biggest stars are looking at direct Internet programming as the new basic cable, and basic cable was the new premium cable," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. He refers to the migration of top actors, producers, directors and writers from broadcast networks to premium channels like HBO and Showtime, and more recently to basic cable like AMC or FX.

What sets Internet companies apart from these earlier evolutions is just how quickly Netflix, and possibly Amazon, are becoming highly regarded distributors of quality television.

"It took HBO a long time to get into real serious series," Thompson says. The subscription channel was founded in 1972, but didn't start digging into original series until the 1980s. It was only the late 1990s that its original scripted programming really took off, with shows like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" attracting top Hollywood talent, along with critical and commercial success.

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"When cable kicked in, people looked at it as the second cousin to networks," Thompson says, admitting he even held his nose up at its attempts at critically acclaimed drama.

According to Thompson, "The Shield" winning an Emmy in 2002 was basic cable's watershed moment, and this year cable hits like "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" and "American Horror Story" dominate the Emmy nominations. However, they are competing with "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development," both pioneers in the online streaming model.

"The respectability of direct to Internet programming has happened much quicker," Thompson says. "They may be new, but they have certainly penetrated the culture."

"House of Cards" was considered a major risk by industry watchers. Netflix reportedly spent $100 million to make the show, bringing in major Hollywood stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Penn, as well as established producers David Fincher and Beau Willimon.

"Netflix does not have that deep of a body of work yet. 'House of Cards' was not 'Mad Men.' But it did get an Emmy nomination, so I think it's a lot closer than a lot of people were expecting," Thompson says. "What Netflix's presence [at the Emmys] indicated was that even though they've just gotten in this business that they've already arrived."

Aside by being a new "status symbol" for celebrities, Thompson says there are other advantages attracting top talent to Internet programming. Netflix releases entire seasons at once (Amazon says it will not be following that model, but also hasn't specified yet what theirs will be.)

"You're guaranteed that many episodes and that they're going to play," Thompson says. Even without a large audience, it still makes sense for an Internet streaming company to release an entire season, as it is not competing for ratings for ad dollars.

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"That was not the case with network. If the first two episodes tanked it's within the realm of possibility that they would take it off the air," Thompson notes.

Of course the downside of the Netflix model is that it doesn't attract the evenly-paced attention of regular television – just think of the buzz "Breaking Bad" has been generating every Sunday night.