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Katherine Heigl: Can NBC’s ‘State of Affairs’ Rescue Her Career?

It’s not easy being America’s sweetheart. Just ask Katherine Heigl. The 35-year-old star tried to wear the crown for a few years, but it never sat comfortably on her head, and after a string of box office flops, she fled Hollywood for Utah. Now, with NBC’s “State of Affairs,” she’s ready to stage a comeback. But will America welcome her back into their homes?

“She did get some blowback in the past, but the core audience loves her romantic comedies,” says Jennifer Salke, NBC president of entertainment. “I think people are very forgiving when they see a character played so well by her.”

That’s still up for debate — critics are just starting to weigh
in on “State of Affairs” — but the stakes couldn’t be higher for Heigl. The series, premiering Nov. 17, airs in a plum spot, after “The Voice.” If the show about a CIA analyst with close ties to the president (Alfre Woodard) works, Heigl will have a second act as a TV star, following her successful run on “Grey’s Anatomy” from 2005 to 2010 as Dr. Izzie Stevens. But if it bombs, Heigl could be the next Suzanne Somers, who never fully found her way back into the spotlight after bailing too soon on a TV phenomenon.

On Nov. 1, Heigl stopped by Facebook to chat with some of her groupies about her new show. She talked about working with a dialect coach to play spitfire presidential adviser Charleston Tucker, as well as having met with gun-handlers and ex-CIA agents. But the question that grabbed the headlines was from a fan who asked about rumors that she’s “very rude” to her co-workers. “Honestly, I don’t think I am,” Heigl wrote. “Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than confrontation or hurting someone’s feelings, and I would never, ever actively do so on purpose.” It’s puzzling why she even took the question, when she had her choice of other softballs: “How many dogs do you have?”; “Do you like France?”

Heigl, who has been acting since she was a child, took a publicity hit because of diva-like behavior toward the end of her “Grey’s Anatomy” run. She’s to blame for some of that, like when she openly withdrew her name for Emmy consideration in 2008, criticizing the “Grey’s” writers for not giving her character enough to do. Her image remains tarnished, which is why she’s not doing any print interviews to promote the launch of “State of Affairs.” The star, who has gone through a roster of high-profile publicists in recent years — including Viewpoint’s Melissa Kates, IDPR CEO Kelly Bush and PMK/BNC’s Catherine Olim and Jill Fritzo — currently doesn’t employ a personal rep. And the actress declined to be interviewed for this story.

When “Grey’s Anatomy” became the surprise hit of 2005, Heigl found herself anointed TV’s most lovable heroine. Even though her character wasn’t the star of the medical dramedy, Heigl benefited from Shonda Rhimes’ sharp writing, love triangles and emotional roller coasters, especially when Izzie fell in love with a patient in season two. In 2007, Heigl came to the rescue of Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” when she replaced Anne Hathaway as the leading lady. The film grossed $149 million at the U.S. box office, and Heigl began starring in other romantic comedies, like 2008’s “27 Dresses” and 2009’s “The Ugly Truth.”

But then the actress alienated some of her “Grey’s” co-stars by trash-talking the show in the press. She ultimately left the series in 2010 under a cloud, just as her movie career cooled off. The romantic comedy genre was starting to fade, but Heigl also made questionable choices, like co-starring with Ashton Kutcher in action-comedy romance “Killers,” and the 2012 tone-deaf police caper “One for the Money.” When her latest project, indie lesbian comedy “Jenny’s Wedding,” needed extra financing for post-production, Heigl appealed to her fans through crowd funding. She asked for $150,000 in a personal YouTube video, but wasn’t able to make that modest goal. (The film was still completed and was being shopped at AFM at press time.)

Enter “State of Affairs,” which was developed several years ago by Bob Simonds, Hank Crumpton (former coordinator for counterterrorism under George W. Bush) and ex-CIA officer Rodney Faraon. They took the project to Heigl and her mother and manager Nancy, both of whom Simonds had known as a film producer. With the actress attached (she and her mom also serve as exec producers), they went to NBC. “They were really smart about what they wanted to do and what kind of character Katherine wanted to play,” Salke says. But, adds the exec, the original script for the pilot “didn’t feel ready.” So Salke hired Joe Carnahan, the writer-producer-director who has worked on episodes of NBC hit “The Blacklist,” to do a rewrite.

“He was really into it,” Salke explains, “and came on to direct the pilot.” After the series was picked up, Ed Bernero (“Criminal Minds”) was brought in as showrunner, but the two clashed about the arc of Heigl’s character, and Bernero exited after just one month. “We didn’t have a bad disagreement, and we parted on good terms,” Bernero tells Variety, adding that he got along with Heigl. (Dario Scardapane, who most recently served as a co-executive producer on “The Bridge,” has taken on the showrunner mantle.)

In “State of Affairs,” Heigl’s character must present the president each morning with the daily threat assessment briefing (even as she grieves the death of her fiance by engaging in a series of one-night stands). At times, the show seems more lightweight than the typical political thriller — it’s like “Homeland” meets “The Devil Wears Prada.” One of Heigl’s early notes to Bernero was that she wanted the character to be different from her trademark TV role. “She wanted to make sure she wasn’t Izzie,” Bernero says.

The show’s pilot has since been tweaked to make Heigl’s heroine less sarcastic — less Izzie-like — and more deferential to the president. Among the cuts are a scene where she sings to herself at her desk, another where she asks about a co-worker’s sex life, and a line where she tells her therapist that she’s a “platypus” because she’s such a slob in her personal life. The episode deals with the threat of kidnapped Americans, and added a reference to Isis after the terrorist group grabbed regular headlines. But NBC had to rework some of the program’s content because of its political nature. Some of the violence plays offscreen, with characters watching on computers, instead of being shown to viewers directly. “I don’t think we are looking to have anyone recoil in horror,” Salke says.

The ad campaign for “State of Affairs” features Heigl’s face blended into the stripes of the American flag, a not-so-subtle attempt at rebranding the actress. A reason she has stayed away from the press is in hopes that good ratings for “State of Affairs” will change the conversation. But that would mean viewers would need to tune in. According to Henry Schafer of the Q Scores Co., Heigl’s popularity is strong among men over 50, and weak among younger men. “I think this profile fits OK with her starring in a new primetime show,” Schafer says. But even though females still relate to her, she’s lost favor with her key demographic of women 18 to 49. In 2008, at the height of her “Grey’s” popularity, her Q score was a 34 among the demo, meaning that 34% of women who knew about her considered her one of their favorite celebrities. This year, she’s at 19%.

Sponsors are betting “State of Affairs” will do well when it debuts. Earlier this year, before the launch of the TV season, a Variety survey of ratings projections from four major ad buyers found the new drama was expected to generate the largest commercial audience among freshman scripted programs in the 2014-15 season in viewers between 18 and 49, the demographic most coveted by advertisers. Of freshman shows, only CBS’ “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts were predicted to garner more C3 ratings — views of commercials that accompany programs up to three days after they air, a measure that dictates ad rates. “State of Affairs” is also the costliest new program for advertisers this season, commanding an average of $224,060 for a 30-second spot, according to another Variety survey. That’s more than veterans like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Simpsons” will get this season.

Yet it’s not Heigl’s presence that’s necessarily luring advertising. Madison Avenue thinks political dramas are popular right now — just look at Showtime’s “Homeland,” CBS’ “Madam Secretary” and Netflix’s “House of Cards.” And advertisers realize “Affairs” will enjoy a healthy lead-in from “The Voice”: The Monday timeslot after the popular competition show has already helped launch “The Blacklist” and “Revolution” to some acclaim.

Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at ad-buying firm Carat, duly notes the sampling guaranteed by “State of Affairs’ ” lead-in as a reason for its projections. Sam Armando, a senior vice president at SMGx, a media-research unit of large ad-buyer Starcom MediaVest Group, also believes the show will be strong out of the gate. “In its time period, it is likely to win 18-to-49,” he says. But he’s quick to add that he doesn’t think “Affairs” will do as well as “The Blacklist” did in the time period. The show’s theme, he says, will not draw as broad an audience — and its star “is definitely more polarizing than James Spader.”

For Heigl to successfully launch her TV comeback beyond the initial buzz from the pilot, viewers will need to like her enough to invite her back into their homes. An NBC rep says she may resume doing interviews in December, and if she does, she’ll need to devise a strategy to talk to journalists without coming across as defensive. Perhaps now would be a good time for her to hire a publicist.

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