But what's the point of letting the actor do it a few times? Is it so they get the 'director' title in the series? Do actors hope to score a separate prize for their directing skills? Or is it reserved for actors who are genuinely talented in directing TV and want to explore their skill?
Directors have, ultimately, artistic control over the final product. While acting can be a satisfying endeavor, the true artistic vision of a story comes from a director. There is also a degree of control over that final vision that no other role has. Many of those involved in acting want to either take a turn at, or, ultimately become directors.
Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood are actors who have achieved as much acclaim for their directing as their acting, and both them are considered huge just for their acting.
Chris Evans, known for "Captain America," doesn't even like the life of an actor/star, as much, and even though he's young and, probably, at his peak of star power and earning potential, he's publicly stated his intention to leave acting (for the most part), preferably to direct, instead.
Why do it on TV shows?
- Because many of the shows use a variety of directors for different episodes, so there's more opportunity there for an actor to try it out with small budgets at stake.
- Because of the smaller scale, it's a way for actors to get that initial experience, with the support of proven and experienced professionals they know and trust. There's probably also an established framework or structure the show has for the less experienced director to work within, making the scope of the endeavor less challenging as a starting point (thanks to jpmc26 for pointing this out in comments).
- Many of the actors, their habits, philosophies, etc. are known to the show's producers and studios because they've been working there, so it's an easier sell for the actor to be given that chance.
- Because of their status, many actors have more leverage for that specific show than they would for a completely original project, and because of the lesser impact because of point #1, it's probably a fairly simple way to keep those stars happier.
- As actors stay with a show for longer periods of time, they will invariably get more input to how characters are shaped and story lines are developed. Allowing a hand in directing an episode seems like a natural extension of that growth.
David Schwimmer, who gave the following response on the subject in an interview with the A.V Club, really wanted to try it:
The A.V. Club: You directed some episodes of Friends. How did you go from cast member to director?
David Schwimmer: Well, I made it clear to everyone that it was an interest of mine, and that I was really going to actively study. So I would mentor with Jim Burrows, this big director, and I'd just follow him when he was directing other shows as well as ours. I would talk to Kevin Bright, one of our executive producers, who also directed a lot of episodes. So I would study, and then finally I said to our producers, "I think I'm ready to try this. If the cast is okay with it, would you guys be okay with me trying one?" By that time, it was like a really well-oiled machine, so even if I were to be a disaster, Kevin was there and everyone was there to have my back. They felt confident enough that it would be worth a shot. So I went to each cast member individually, and I was really straight with them, I said, "If you have any weirdness about it at all, I won't do it. But I would really love to try this." And each of them was cool with it. After my first one, they thought I had something, so I ended up doing about a dozen of those, then some pilots for NBC and Fox. The more I directed, the more confident I became in my ability.
Bryan Cranston had a desire to direct, and discussed this in an interview on the AMC website:
Q: Was there any particular reason you directed the first episode [of season 2] back?
A: Last year I wanted to see how it went being the lead in the cast and being in almost every scene. I wanted to see how that would play out, and whether my desire to direct would be beneficial to the show. They gave me this episode only because I needed the prep time. The only time that I, as an actor in the show, could prep properly would be the first episode when we’re not in production yet. It wasn’t like giving me a place of honor of directing the first show back — it was chosen out of necessity.
For most actors it's about branching out in their professional lives. Directing can give an actor a different perspective into the way that a show is created and put together, so it could be about seeing the other side of the lens and understanding how the director's decisions can influence their own acting. It could also be about taking on a new challenge in the form of a new career path, which can be easier to do when it's within the field that you've already worked in for most of your life.
The actor would have to be directing a lot of episodes of television for the work to make any impact in terms of their pay grade, and awards for TV directors are not plentiful. It's going to be more about job satisfaction and experimentation.