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Cable TV Using Latenight Talk Shows to Offset Pricey Hit Series

Budget-friendly after-programs can help networks offset the more expensive shows that precede them

When TV shows proved popular in the past, networks would take old, favorite characters and launch them in new programs. If viewers liked “Alice,” so the theory went, they’d love “Flo.” If fans enjoyed “Grey’s Anatomy,” they’d go crazy for “Private Practice.”

Now some TV outlets have determined they can give viewers more of what they want without risking a fortune to do it. Who needs to invest in a scripted spinoff when all viewers really want is to hear chatter about their favorite program on an aftershow?

“In order for networks to be able to make these incredibly expensive dramas, they need to be able to make some programs at a lower cost,” said Michael Davies, president of Embassy Row, the Sony Pictures Entertainment shop behind “Talking Dead,” made for fans of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which began as a half hour following the show, and has expanded to an hour.

Embassy’s “Shark After Dark,” which aired at 11 p.m. during Discovery Network’s Shark Week, was an attempt to generate more chatter for the event. AMC launched the half-hour “Talking Bad” to follow the final season of “Breaking Bad,” which debuted Aug. 11. HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” each week directs viewers to watch an online post-mortem called “Overtime.” Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” also from Embassy, itself began as an aftershow of sorts.

To be sure, spinoffs remain attractive, with the CW launching “The Originals” this fall from “The Vampire Diaries.” And “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan has been vocal about his interest to create a series around Bob Odenkirk’s attorney character, Saul Goodman.

But with more viewers tweeting, posting and messaging about their favorite programs even when the show is not live, more networks are testing post-show concepts. “You want to be able to harness that for your viewers,” said Nancy Daniels, exec veep of development, West, for Discovery Channel.

Talking Dead,” in which Chris Hardwick discusses the plot twists of “The Walking Dead,” snared 5.16 million viewers on the heels of the series’ March 31 season finale, which attracted 12.42 million, per Nielsen. Similarly, the Aug. 4 edition of “Shark After Dark” drew 2.11 million compared with the 4.82 million who watched that evening’s “Monster Shark.” In both cases the aftershows held more than 40% of their audience.

And when it aired Aug. 5, “Shark After Dark” beat competing talkshows “Conan” and “The Daily Show.”

The two post-mortems mix fan chatter with appearances by guests, some of whom have a tenuous relationship to the show they’re ostensibly on hand to discuss. “Shark After Dark,” for instance, welcomed Tara Reid and Ian Ziering, the stars of Syfy’s “Sharknado,” and entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who also appears on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Get it?

The format is not appropriate for all programs, said Davies. To determine suitability, Embassy Row executives examine the social-media activity that takes place while a program airs. “We look at the volume of the conversation and we look at the quality of the conversation,” he said. Do social-media monitors find their feeds scrolling frequently? Are hashtags associated with the show used readily? Are viewers asking more questions, no matter whether answers are provided?

Costs can be offset by ad sales, should the shows last, said Discovery’s Daniels. But investment can be required: Discovery has a social-media team in place to monitor “Shark After Dark” while it’s on.

So far, the format hasn’t made its way to broadcast TV. Intense social-media activity, after all, isn’t necessarily the equivalent of broad viewership — even if shows like ABC’s “Scandal” swelled their audiences thanks in part to Twitter buzz. A recent Nielsen study of 200 episodes of primetime TV programs found that an increase in tweets about a show led to higher ratings just one-third of the time.

Perhaps aftershows best serve passionate audiences rather than big ones. “Some shows were meant to be talked about,” said Odenkirk, speaking about “Talking Bad” during a recent red-carpet interview before a “Breaking Bad” event in New York. “And some shows were meant to take up the time they take in life and no more.”

(Pictured: Emily Kinney of “The Walking Dead” is among the show’s actors who stop by AMC’s after-program “Talking Dead,” which has been a success in the ratings and expanded to an hour earlier this year.)

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