Taking cue from 'L&O,' 'CSI' sees no crime in branching out

Primetime will look a lot more like your neighborhood grocery store this fall.

NBC’s “Law & Order” already comes in four tasty flavors: original, “Special Victims Unit,” “Criminal Intent” and the new reality-based “Crime and Punishment.” Now, viewers will also get their pick of CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” either in Las Vegas or Miami sizes.

Long an obsession in the feature world, where sequels mean big bucks (“Austin Powers,” anyone?), the nets — tired of audiences tuning out serialized dramas, particularly in repeats — have caught franchise fever.

Variations on a hit such as “Law & Order” and “CSI” offer webheads shows that repeat well, aren’t prohibitively expensive and are easy to promote.

“Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, of course, has become the grand master of the genre. All three of his “L&O” entries have found their way into the Nielsen top 20. Wolf likes to compare his string of shows to Campbell’s Soup: “If you’re in the mood for soup, they’re all going to be good.”

By branding “SVU” and “Criminal Intent,” Wolf and Universal Network Television were able to extract higher license fees (worth hundreds of thousands of extra dollars an episode) and dual-window rights from NBC, something the indie studio probably wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Universal and Wolf also were able to do the same with the update of classic cop skein “Dragnet,” which will air on ABC this midseason.

Franchises, of course, are nothing new to television.

Besides the “Star Trek” skeins, the nets have produced a succession of “Superman” series (the WB’s “Smallville” the most recent), “Hallmark Hall of Fame” created a brand name in the longform world and reality shows such as MTV’s “The Real World” have popped up in a variety of forms in recent years. This will be the third incarnation of the aforementioned “Dragnet.”

Then there was the newsmagazine explosion. Suddenly it wasn’t unusual to schedule “Dateline NBC” or “20/20″ three, four, even five nights a week.

It’s not quite the same thing, but spinoffs are old hat in the TV biz; in the 1970s, shows such as “Happy Days” and “All in the Family” spawned numerous shows revolving around supporting characters. Still, those offshoots didn’t carry the same title as the mother ship.It was virtually unheard of for two scripted shows with the same brand name to be on at the same time until 1995, when the syndie “Star Trek: Deep Space 9″ was on at the same time that UPN’s “Star Trek: Voyager” debuted.

Now, with four variations of “L&O” on the air, Wolf has pretty much achieved his goal of making the procedural drama the “Dateline” of the scripted world. “You can’t mention franchises without mentioning Dick Wolf,” says “CSI” creator/exec producer Anthony Zuiker. “He’s the godfather of it all.” Indeed, without the success of “Law & Order” parts two and three, it’s unlikely “CSI: Miami” would even exist.

Zuiker admits that he always assumed the show would spawn a spinoff, he just didn’t expect it to happen so fast (“CSI” is only entering its third season this fall).

“The challenge is we had to make them different, yet executionwise they’re the same,” he says.

Zuiker also admits to a fair amount of sibling rivalry between the original “CSI” crew and the spinoff. “I characterize it as, you have a 2-year-old in the house and a newborn on the way. When the newborn is born, the 2-year-old is not happy, but after six months they’re playing together in the sandbox.”

By marketing “CSI: Miami” as an extension of the brand and just a spinoff CBS will be able to launch the show with higher-than-average viewer awareness.

Of course, franchising out a successful series isn’t as easy as it sounds. Given the intricate forensic mysteries at the heart of “CSI,” scripts for the original and “CSI: Miami” take longer to write.

“You can’t do it with every show,” says Bruckheimer TV topper Jonathan Littman, whose company produces “CSI” with Alliance Atlantis and CBS Prods. “You can’t with soap operas. It takes a close-ended crime drama.

“The concept carries as much weight as the characters. Technically, ‘CSI’ could be done in all 50 states.”

But there is a limit to how many times you can license a variation on the same show, warns Jeff Gaspin, NBC exec VP of alternative series, specials, longforms and program strategy. “It’s always about balance. We’ve been successful because of our franchise shows but at some point you have too many.”

For sci-fi or comicbook-based franchises such as “Star Trek” or “Superman,” producers must also face the toughest critics of them all: the die-hard fans. “There are those ardent fans of a brand who go crazy if we ever try to change anything and mess with their heroes,” says WB senior VP of drama development Carolyn Bernstein.

As execs have discovered, franchises are great but networks can’t rely on a brand name alone.

“It’s certainly easier to bring in an audience when there is a brand that they’re familiar with and that they know and love that gets them in the door,” Bernstein says. “The funny thing about ‘Smallville’ is we discovered older viewers were excited with the idea of a series about young Clark Kent, but that a lot of younger viewers were not familiar with the Superman mythology.

“There was a split appeal with that show. So certainly there’s a hook that helps get people in the door, but then the show has to work on its own merits.”

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