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Networks Take the Easy Route With Overload of Spinoff Prospects

Franchise fever has nets moving too fast as they parlay new product out of popular series

It’s time to uproot TV’s overgrown garden of planted spinoffs. Enough already.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

The major nets are going overboard in efforts to squeeze new shows out of existing skeins with very special backdoor pilot episodes. Sure, it’s an economical way to float a trial balloon for a prospective new series. But viewers aren’t stupid, or patient at a time when savvy critics like Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall are asking philosophical questions about the limits of space and time when it comes to viewing options. “How much good TV is too much?” he posited in an April 11 post.

“Chicago Fire” has done an admirable job for NBC this year in the Wednesday 10 p.m. slot with not much to speak of as a lead-in. But the show is averaging a 1.6 demo rating. With all due respect to Chicago’s hunkiest, that rating does not scream spinoff potential. But the show’s frosh season finale on May 15 will feature guest shots from Scott Eastwood and Melissa Sagemiller in a seg that introduces them as the firefighters’ good-looking pals in the Chi cop shop.

ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” has been a delightful surprise over the past two seasons — a rare example of a supremely creative, intricate fantasy saga that works on broadcast TV for adults and older kids. It has been hailed for deftly weaving a household-name fairy tale characters and Disney icons into a compelling drama that fleshes them out as living, breathing characters — revolving around the Snow White legend.

Now there’s a push to try a similar tack with “Alice in Wonderland” at the center. A short presentation reel for the concept was shot on the “Once” set this month after filming concluded for the season. While sources say “Once” creators-exec producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis came up with a dynamite concept for an “Alice”-centric show, I can’t help but fret that another trip down the rabbit hole would diminish the specialness of the “Once” concept. (Apparently the thinking is a batch of “Alice” segs could run in “Once’s” timeslot to avoid in-season repeats.)

CBS seems likely to go to the “NCIS” well again next season with an iteration (“NCIS: Red,” pictured above) toplined by Kim Raver and John Corbett (this time they’re a roving team of naval investigators). The response to last month’s two-episode arc that introduced Raver and Corbett’s characters on “NCIS: Los Angeles” was mixed, but word is that CBS brass is determined to have Raver on their air — and an “NCIS”-branded vehicle is a ready-made platform. If ordered, “NCIS: Red” would be a third-generation spinoff, with a lineage that stretches back 18 years to “JAG,” which in 2003 begat “NCIS,” which spawned “NCIS: LA” in 2009.

CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” is airing its long-awaited planted spinoff seg on April 25, revolving around a clutch of immortals in New Orleans known as the Originals.

Even “Breaking Bad” is not immune to spinoff mania, with reports surfacing (again) about Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman character soldiering on after Walter White’s saga comes to a close. At least, thank goodness, there’s no talk of sullying “Breaking Bad’s” final eight episodes with an explicit pitch for the comedy hijinks of “Better Call Saul.”

Networks favor planted spinoffs because they’re cheaper to produce than a pilot pulled together from scratch. And if the episode clicks, a familiar character or title gives the project a leg-up in marketing and promotion.

“Law & Order” and “CSI” set the template for the franchising of primetime hits more than decade ago. But “Law & Order” had been on the air for nine seasons before “Law & Order: SVU” was born. “CSI” had been TV’s top drama for two seasons before the sun rose on “CSI: Miami.”

After a very unscientific survey of TV lit agents, I was surprised that there wasn’t more outrage among writers about the growth of planted spinoffs, given that scribes make more money writing pilot scripts than they do for a regular episode. It’s a testament to the grueling nature of the pilot process, and the seemingly improved odds of a planted seg going the distance to a series order.

But those considerations shouldn’t drive development decisions. Not at a time when broadcasters are struggling to measure up against stiff competition elsewhere on the dial. Let those firefighters and fairy tale figures sweat it out a little longer on their own, and make room for less derivative ideas.

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