Networks Putting New Spins on the Spinoff

Get ready for TV’s spinoff invasion. Over half a dozen of next season’s newcomers will hit the airwaves with a presold connection to proven ratings performers. From “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul” to fresh takes on the durable “CSI” and “NCIS” franchises to CW’s comicbook offshoot “The Flash” (introduced via “Arrow”), they’re already among the most anticipated new shows.

There’s nothing new about the concept of spinoffs, but as the crowded TV landscape makes launching a series increasingly difficult, the built-in appeal offered by a known quantity (like NBC’s looming revival “Heroes: Reborn” or ABC’s big-to-small screen experiment “Marvel’s Agent Carter”) is proving more appealing to networks than ever before. Just as every movie studio wants at least one powerhouse franchise to call its own, TV networks are embracing the value of successful brands.

“It was enormously helpful,” Dick Wolf says about launching “Chicago P.D.” this year, just one season after the debut of its mothership companion “Chicago Fire.” “I don’t know how I can emphasize that enough. It’s almost impossible to launch anything short of the second coming. This provided a natural promotional base. With ‘Fire’ moving to Tuesday and ‘PD’ on Wednesday there’s a natural progression of cases that can overlap and build.”

Wolf brings his decades of experience with the “Law & Order” brand to his dual role as executive producer of the Peacock’s two “Chicago” dramas, further exploring the value of series that share recurring characters and crossover storylines. “The audience really likes it when (‘P.D.’ star) Sophia Bush and (‘Fire’ star) Taylor Kinney end up in bed together,” Wolf says.

Wolf’s long-term relationship with NBC underscores the important role spinoffs play in keeping networks in business with valuable talent, something that’s at the heart of AMC’s decision to move into spinoff territory with two upcoming series: “Saul,” set to bow in November with a cast led by “Breaking Bad” alums Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, and an as yet untitled companion to blockbuster “The Walking Dead” expected in 2015.

“When Vince Gilligan says there’s more that he wants to share about a character like [Odenkirk’s] Saul Goodman, then that’s something I’m thrilled to do,” says AMC president Charlie Collier. “It was never an analysis of whether or not ‘Breaking Bad’ needs a spinoff. It was absolutely a bet on Vince and his ability to create worlds that are compelling.”

With “Walking Dead” Collier says the idea came from creator Robert Kirkman, and he expects the show’s legions of fans are primed for more. “I know firsthand that we get questions all the time about what’s going on in the rest of the world as it relates to the zombie apocalypse.”

Capitalizing on the success of any show capable of drawing massive audiences right now feels like a no-brainer, but “NCIS” and “NCIS: New Orleans” executive producer Gary Glasberg says there’s a fine line to tread when heading into spinoff territory: “What was always the goal from day one with this was to continue to tap into the over 17 million viewers who watch ‘NCIS’ every week. The goal is to give that same audience something else to watch and yet make it different enough that it’s its own animal.”

But it’s not a surefire formula. A recent attempt to do exactly that with “NCIS: Red” — which would have starred John Corbett and Kim Raver and was introduced via “NCIS: Los Angeles” — didn’t make it past its backdoor pilot the previous season.

The CW experienced a similar failure to launch with this season’s proposed “Supernatural: Bloodlines,“ which would have expanded the universe of the network’s nine-year veteran “Supernatural,” CW’s most watched show in the 18-49 demo.

The network passed on “Bloodlines” in favor of stronger pilots in contention, partly due to disappointing fan reaction to the “Supernatural” episode that introduced the new characters.

CW chief Mark Pedowitz told reporters at this year’s upfronts in May that plans are already in the works to try for another “Supernatural” spinoff with a fresh concept next pilot season.

A similar decision was made at CBS with the heavily hyped “How I Met Your Dad,” which offered a variation on departing hit “How I Met Your Mother.” The Eye insisted on retooling the pilot that was delivered — and production company Twentieth Century Fox Television balked.

Although Glasberg was not involved with “NCIS: Red,” going back to the drawing board appears to have worked for CBS and “NCIS: New Orleans.” Fan reaction was far more enthusiastic to the introduction on “NCIS” of the “New Orleans” spinoff’s core characters, played by Scott Bakula, CCH Pounder, Lucas Black and Zoe McLellan.

“We have over 18 million Facebook fans,“ Glasberg says about monitoring social media feedback. “I have the world’s most dedicated fan base and we do pay attention to what they have to say. It’s important.”

Gauging reactions through backdoor pilots is one way to test the waters with a larger than normal prospective audience, but along with recent successful examples of that strategy (“Chicago P.D.,” CW’s “The Originals”) have come equally high-profile flops (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” and ABC Family’s “Ravenswood”) for which the audience simply didn’t show up.

“You never know what’s gonna work, most things don’t,” Wolf says. “It’s very hard to have lightning strike twice in two years and this was inordinately satisfying.”

One way to protect the brand: Think of every new show, spinoff or not, as something unique unto itself, say execs. “Each show has to be good enough to stand on its own. That’s why we bet on these folks,” Collier says. “They’re not trying to just hang on, they’re creating a new world and that’s what we not only expect of them but what we know they can deliver.”

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