The knock against television series used to be that shows essentially told the same story week after week.
But lately, networks have been trying to replicate entire series night after night.
From NBC’s “The Office” to Fox’s “Family Guy,” broadcasters increasingly are urging their best performers to produce offspring. The debut of “Grey’s Anatomy”-inspired “Private Practice” last fall was only the start of the latest round. Next season there’s the still-unnamed “The Office” spin-off and Fox’s “Family Guy” extension, “The Cleveland Show,” as well as Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” prequel, “Caprica,” which is filming a two-hour backdoor pilot. Projects based on Fox’s “House” and “Prison Break” also are in development.
“It’s a simple financial equation,” “House” creator David Shore said. “Something is working, they want more of it. If you can figure out a way to split it in half, they’re gonna go for it. It’s really that simple, and I can’t blame them. It’s just a question of making it work.”
Spin-offs are nothing new. The annals of television count more than 100 attempts to successfully spin off a show’s character or concept. The 1970s in particularly were spin-off boom years, when such hits as “All in the Family” and “Happy Days” spun off multiple shows.
By the ’90s, however, spin-offs had become much less common. Sometimes a network would spin off a dying comedy to fill a ratings void (such as when NBC’s “Cheers” successfully spawned “Frasier” and NBC’s “Friends,” less successfully, gave rise to “Joey”).
More recently, networks tried copying such crime procedural hits as NBC’s “Law & Order” and CBS’ “CSI.” The spin-offs worked partly because their parent shows had an episodic formula that was precisely replicated to fill multiple hours.
TV historian Tim Brooks said the new spin-off projects represent an overall trend of networks trying to make safer plays. “Networks with their declining audiences and pinched financials seem to be trying to stretch things more than create things,” Brooks said.
“The Office,” “Grey’s,” “Family Guy” and “House” also each bear the tricky-to-copy distinctive voice of their respective creators — a point “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof says is no longer unnoticed by media-savvy fans.
“I’ve seen in the press and also on the message boards, people are concerned with what’s going to happen to ‘The Office’ if Greg Daniels starts to work on a second show,” he said. “Whereas before, the public perception would be that Steve Carell makes ‘The Office’ great ’cause he just makes up the show as he goes along.”
Fan concern that writer/producers could spread themselves too thinly by working on multiple shows is perfectly valid, writers say. Just running one broadcast series is more than enough to fill a workday.
“The studio will say, ‘You know, we’d love to get another show from you,”’ one producer said. “Then 10 minutes later, they’ll say, ‘But your current hit has to be your No. 1 show.’ And they mean both parts of it. What they really want is for me to work 48 hours a day.”
Lindelof noted he’s frequently asked by fans if he’d ever do a spin-off of his trapped-on-an-island hit “Lost.”
His answer: “How does that work?”