Neil Patrick Harris: 'Stunt casting' bad for 'Mother'

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NEW YORK -- If Neil Patrick Harris had his way, Britney Spears would be banned from the set of "How I Met Your Mother."

Nothing against the pop singer personally -- he just doesn't think the show should bring guests aboard for a ratings boost alone.

"I'm in the minority that our show does not need stunt casting in order to succeed," Harris declared during a break from taping the Monday night CBS sitcom, which has grown a cult following since its 2005 debut.

"I worry that if they start 'Will & Grace'-ing us too much, that the show will suffer. And we're all really proud of the content of the show. I mean, viewership is not our game. It's the network and the studio's game, you know. It's the promotion department's game," the actor, who plays womanizer Barney, told The Associated Press in an interview last week.

Spears has been the most high-profile guest star to visit the set, following past appearances by Mandy Moore, Enrique Iglesias and Heidi Klum. But her capable March 24 cameo -- feverishly promoted, anticipated, blogged-about, critiqued, analyzed and, ultimately, well-reviewed -- gave Harris pause to voice a concern: Was the show selling out?

"We wish we weren't opposite an awkward reality dancing competition," he said. "But we have no say about that. I just am a real fan of our content. I think we have a great show going, and I hope it's not screwed up by the desire for 700,000 more viewers."

Make that 1 million more viewers for the Britney episode, which grabbed an audience of 10.6 million tuning in as Spears filled her small role as a bubbly receptionist. Among the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, it was the most-watched episode of the series ever.

The show has an average viewership this season of 8 million per episode, including reruns; last season, it attracted an average of 8.5 million viewers each showing. It returned with all-new episodes last month following the writers strike, capturing 9.6 million viewers the week before Spears' appearance and slipping back to 9.5 million the week after.

Executive producer Carter Bays told the AP he'd be open to another Spears guest spot. As it happened, the pop star's camp approached the show, and Bays is proud of the result: "We had no illusions about what the stakes were. And if it was classic stunt casting, like, 'Oh, my tour bus broke down outside' and I just go, 'Wow, Britney Spears, what are you doing here?' then, like, we're just flying over that shark real fast. It was a great character and I think she played it well. ... I'm glad that we didn't sensationalize the character in any way."

The show concluded with Spears' secretary flirting with Barney. The following episode, which aired last Monday, introduced a "mystery woman" who's been warning other women not to date the single-minded cad. Asked if Spears might turn out to be the secret slanderer, Bays said: "Could be. There's no reason why not." He also suggested the talented actress Sarah Chalke, who guest starred alongside Spears.

Asked for his guess, Harris said: "No telling, but based on the stunt casting we've done in the past, I'm guessing Tara Reid."
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