Reality franchises fear the tipping point

Networks gauge when next spinoff is one too many

A 1983 ad for MTV boldly proclaimed, “Too much is never enough.” It appears that network execs are heeding that advice when it comes to their hit reality properties.

Thanks to the success of E!’s ubiquitous Kardashian clan and Bravo’s Botox-obsessed “Real Housewives,” among others, cable networks are spinning off everything from MTV’s “Jersey Shore” to Fox’s “Glee” (that’s right, even a scripted show can birth a reality sidequel). In fact, the standalone success — like broadcast stalwarts “Survivor” and “American Idol” — is becoming an endangered species.

In April, E! launched “Khloe & Lamar,” its third spinoff of what it dubs the mothership franchise, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” to a sizable aud of 2.5 million viewers. E!, like most networks, is increasingly eager to maximize the potential of hit properties like “Keeping Up,” its highest-rated program ever (averaging more than 3 million viewers in its most recent season), in an effort to attract advertising and product placement dollars and burnish the E! brand. Though the cabler won’t discuss ad spends, which are typically bought in chunks that cover multiple programs, an insider says the four series have become the network’s biggest draw to advertisers targeting 18- to 34-year-old women.

Even more important for E! is the pop culture currency enjoyed by the Kardashians, who constantly grace the covers of the glossy gossip magazines, creating greater awareness for the network. Similarly, other nets bask in the notoriety of their unlikely cover girls, including MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” which birthed “Teen Mom,” and Bravo’s multiple “Real Housewives” incarnations. Likewise, MTV is moving forward with two “Jersey Shore” spinoffs, scheduled to air in 2012.

Though the upside of spinning off popular reality brands is huge, networks say they must remain vigilant about overexposure.

“It’s a balancing act,” says Damla Dogan, E! senior VP of original programming and series development. “You always want to give the viewer new information about these characters. But you don’t want to burn the viewer out either.”

E! says it has struck that equilibrium by keeping the tone of the four “Kardashian” shows distinct. “Keeping Up” plays like a family comedy, while “Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami” is younger and sexier (think more bikinis and tropical drinks). “Kourtney & Kim Take New York” puts the spotlight on the family’s biggest celebrity, Kim Kardashian. And “Khloe & Lamar” takes a more earnest approach, with fewer parties and more relationship banter with Khloe and her Los Angeles Lakers hubby, Lamar Odom.

After striking gold with “Keeping Up,” network executives began devising a way to spin off the property.

“The bottom line is we went with the most organic route possible,” says Dogan. “We didn’t force it. They were opening a store in Miami. Who is Kourtney going to take with her? Khloe, of course. So, that’s how we arrived there. As for New York, Kim has a lot of friends there. They would have done this without us there. We just tagged along with cameras.

“We started talking to Khloe and Lamar ever since their wedding. But Khloe and Lamar came to us (last year) and said, ‘We’re ready.’?”

Meanwhile, Bravo has now replicated its “Real Housewives of Orange County” formula in six additional locales: New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, Miami, Beverly Hills and Washington, D.C. Those set in D.C. and Miami have been the lowest rated (about 1.5 million viewers per episode), while Atlanta (3.5 million) has shown to be the most popular.

“We’re at a really good place right now,” says Andy Cohen, executive VP of original programming and development at Bravo, which also has enjoyed success spinning off its “Top Chef” franchise. “Each city will be on for three or four months, and then they go away for close to a year. That’s a nice thing. It allows the women to regroup. It also allows the viewers to miss them.”

Given the number of “Real Housewives” offspring, which also includes “New York” alum Bethenny Frankel’s “Bethenny Ever After,” is there any bandwidth left for more shallow women with deep pockets? Cohen says there is, if the cast is right.

“You only want cities with strong points of view, cities that have strong regional personalities,” he explains. “We’ve tried to mount a Texas (incarnation), but we never hit the nail on the head with casting.”

As for the standalone stalwarts, less seems best. Though there was once talk of an “American Idol” spinoff, the rumored “Celebrity Idol” never materialized. And when in need of a boost, “Survivor” simply brings out a franchise contestant like “Boston Rob” Mariano, who has spun himself out as a nonfiction TV staple, appearing on such shows “The Amazing Race” and the History Channel’s upcoming globetrotting adventure “Around the World in 80 Ways.”

Typically, non-contestant shows like E!’s “The Girls Next Door” — whose offspring include “Kendra” and “Holly’s World” — are best suited for spinoff treatment. Competition shows freshen up better with small tweaks to the formula, such as “The Amazing Race: Family Edition.”

Still, a number of competition shows have proven ripe for spawn. TLC’s “Cake Boss,” which attracts culinary-themed product placement and ads, has served as the launching pad for two series: “Next Great Baker” and “Kitchen Boss.” And its “Say Yes to the Dress” has branched out with “Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss.”

Ultimately, networks exec carefully weigh the pros and cons of spinoffs. Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” became a TV powerhouse after its debut in 2003, launching everything from merchandise to a “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl” spinoff. But the series petered out after five seasons, a victim of its own oversaturation.

“You want to be careful,” Cohen says. “You don’t want to reach the tipping point. You want it below that. (Your audience) should be satisfied but not overserved.”