Scripted hits likely to spawn reality companions
Oxygen will soon premiere “I’m Having Their Baby,” a series about women giving up yet-to-be-born kids for adoption. In a zeitgeist-y way, the show represents the perfect unscripted complement to “The New Normal,” an NBC fall comedy about a gay couple and their surrogate mother.
Now, NBC should only be so lucky that “New Normal” becomes a hit. Yet if lightning strikes, its sister Comcast cable network has its very own thematic twin already on. And while that’s likely happenstance, satellite programs orbiting hits are occurring all over — like those remora fish that follow sharks around, feeding off their scraps — moving toward a day where every TV success will probably come with a cheaper on-air companion.
AMC formally made such a connection with “The Talking Dead,” a half-hour talkshow devoted to “The Walking Dead” that brings avid fans their very own DVD extra every week the primary show is on.
Most of the other relationships have been of the cross-network variety, with big broadcast fare like Fox’s “Glee” begetting Oxygen’s “The Glee Project” — a competition in which the prize involves a spot on the main show — or TV Guide’s “Idol Chat,” inexpensive gab about “American Idol.”
In a TV environment with plenty of channels hungry for easily promotable fare and able to get by with a fraction of the audience attracted by a marquee franchise, an increase in the number of popular series synergistically spawning their own value-added progeny is not far-fetched. And frankly, if producers and networks don’t clone their own, rivals are happy to do it for them.
In hindsight, ABC could have done a lot worse during “Lost’s” heyday than to air a Friday-night chat show deciphering its mysteries — expanding on the showrunners’ podcasts — coupled with the “Lost” reruns the network used to plug hard-to-fill gaps in its lineup.
Similarly, had ABC conjured “Desperate Housewives of Beverly Hills” (or Orange County) for one of its cable siblings, it would not only have wrung more mileage out of that brand name but anticipated the lucrative niche Bravo wound up building its profile around.
Admittedly, there are only so many viewers eager to transform their weekly date with a series into a more committed multishow relationship, but we’ve all seen the poor bastards at Comic-Con, and it’s pretty clear that when they get a taste for something, there’s virtually no such thing as overkill.
Moreover, this every-hit-gets-a-companion philosophy reflects a logical shift from the past — where networks sought to manage assets for the long haul — to a cash-in-now, flame-bright-and-fizzle-quickly mentality more suited to the modern media age, which exhausts episodic standouts faster than ever.
Let’s face it, the “Jersey Shore” gang isn’t built to age particularly well, which may explain why MTV has been spinning them off into standalone vehicles — “The Pauly D Project,” “Snooki & JWoww” and so on — as fast as it can, before all the tanning takes its eventual toll.
There is an inherent risk in prematurely depleting a property (NBC’s “Heroes,” which began doing webisodes while the series itself creatively flew off the rails, comes to mind), but with long-range paydays less of a certainty — especially for dense serialized dramas, which don’t possess as much shelf life or repeatability — programmers are probably leaving money on the table if they don’t strike while the iron’s hot.
There’s also an obvious allure for creative talent and their reps, who may not field the kind of syndication paydays they once enjoyed but, instead of deferred payouts, can command producer fees right now on multiple properties stemming from the same idea. So if you like FX’s “American Horror Story” — a concept almost sure to yield diminishing returns — why not augment the title’s near-term harvest with an inexpensive reality haunted-house spinoff? Besides, Syfy channel is already crawling with spooky shows just like that for those enamored with night-vision photography.
Practically speaking, additional development costs would be merely incremental, and if the reality knockoffs have standalone appeal, it could help defray the expense of scripted flops.
By the way, when will the unscripted version of “Breaking Bad” finally hit the airwaves? Assuming they can get the whole crystal meth/drug-dealing thing past legal, best reality show ever.