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I am thinking of Ally McBeal in particular. For the entire run of the show the opening credits generally had clips of a character and the name of the actor that plays them. The final two actors (Peter MacNicol for the entire run, Gil Bellows until season 4 and Robert Downey Jr from there on) are billed differently. It says 'With Peter MacNicol and Robert Downey Jr', accompanied with the respective video clips for example.

While the characters are important, they are by no means the most central. In fact, not one of the actors billed as 'with' appear in every episode! Why are they billed differently?

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TVTropes covers this: When the Title Sequence includes credits, there is a whole mess of jockeying for position that goes on. The dominant position within the credits sequence is either at the very beginning of the list, or at the very end. (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AndStarring) –  shufler Mar 15 '12 at 18:57

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Contractual agreements generally requested by the actor's agent to garner him/her more recognition. And, like you said, to give them credit for episodes they weren't in. It's just a way to make that actor stick out amongst the rest to earn him/her more brownie points.

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