To spin-off or not to spin-off

You’ve got a massively popular television show that everyone’s talking about and everyone’s watching, but how can you do more? You can’t just increase the number of episodes, seasons in the US are already over 20 episodes long and there just aren’t enough days in the year for casts and crews to double that. So the obvious solution is to create a spin-off, possibly even a whole franchise. You’re almost guaranteed to carry across a sizeable chunk of your audience*, half your marketing has already been done for you and the money should just role in.

But how do you do it? You’ve got to create something similar enough it’s familiar, but distinct enough that it’s not cannibalising your original show. You have to look at your show and work out what makes it popular then see if you can translate that to another show. What’s the Thing that carries from one to the next, what is it about your ‘universe’ that makes it worthy of another entry?

If you’re making a science fiction show, that’s a fairly straightforward literal question. Can you just move to somewhere else in the universe you’ve created and tell another story? Maybe look at a different period of that universe’s history (Battlestar/Caprica) or a different location (Stargate, Star Trek). You can keep the complexities of how your universe works and still make it entirely new.

If your ‘universe’ isn’t quite as obvious, the best idea is to break your show down into its primary and secondary defining characteristics – then change the secondary ones. So the primary concept of CSI was that it was about solving crime using forensics. The secondaries might be that it’s set in Las Vegas, with a graveyard shift, with a team led by a scientist. Right, so that means your spin-off is still about solving forensics, but set in a different city, with a day shift and a different style team lead. Welcome to Miami and Horatio Cane. It’s about changing the context without changing the concept. I think Law and Order follows a similar pattern (I don’t actually watch any of them) at its core is the idea of following a crime through the whole legal process, from investigation to the courts, from there you can change the type of crime investigated, or the location, or the type of investigators, while not losing sight of the core idea.

If your show is a little less about what it does and more about how it does it – the writing or storytelling style for example, maybe you literally pick up a character and spin them out somewhere else. This is a popular choice for sitcoms (Cheers/Frasier, Friends/Joey), often with the spinoff launching after the initial series finishes and the character is no longer needed in the parent show. But it has also worked for other types of show, Shonda Rhimes spun off Grey’s Anatomy by having a character head for California. By taking one of the (sorry) older characters from Grey’s, Rhimes has created a more mature show in Private Practice that doesn’t directly compete with the original, but is still familiar in the way it tells stories. The tricky thing is finding a character that’s interesting enough to carry the audience with them, and an actor that’s ready to move from being a supporting player, to being a lead.

But maybe this is all putting too much thought into it. Do you really need to have that strong a relationship between the series? Technically NCIS is a spin-off from JAG, but beyond the fact that they’re both set in side departments of the Navy, do they really have anything in common? Maybe the very fact that NCIS is massively more successful than JAG (it’s currently the number 1 rated show of the year, the best JAG ever did was 15th) shows they’re not that closely related. This year NCIS spawned a further spin-off set in LA, while still nominally in the same department, the new show has a very different approach to investigation, it’s fixed in one city instead of being national and focuses more on a buddy partnership (with some big name actors) than a full team. I think in many ways the show would have been stronger if it had been independent and not continually had to force the navy stuff into the stories.

One thing that NCIS:LA did gain from being a spin-off was that they launched the show with a ‘backdoor pilot’ i.e. they snuck the new show into an episode of the current one. It’s all very friendly, your favourite characters introduce the new team – “hey, it’s alright, you’ll like these guys, you can trust them”. It’s also a way to run a massive focus group on your new show, did the audience like it, do they like the characters? There’s still plenty of time to pull the whole thing, or tweak the cast before you launch the series proper in a few months. NCIS:LA learnt that a couple of characters didn’t work and swapped them out.

If you can get this right, there is so much to gain. If your spin-off runs in parallel you can block out a whole chunk of the schedule and each show helps the other. You can bump your ratings at any time by doing crossover episodes with characters from one show appearing in the other, CSI recently sent a character on a grand tour of the series and that managed to get even ME to watch Miami! But when there’s a lot to gain from getting it right, there’s also a lot to lose if you get it wrong. A bad entry into a franchise can taint the whole thing (Enterprise, I’m looking at you!). Trying to overlap shows can mean that you just dilute the quality of your original offering – if you have to come up with twice as many different navy related crimes to investigate each week, sooner or later you’re going to run out of ideas.
And that leads me on to my thoughts on the Criminal Minds spin-off… but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that.

* I spent half hour looking at ratings, comparing the first season of the spin-off against the season of its parent that aired at the same time. The selection I looked at was pretty narrow, and self-lmited to successful spinoffs, but ranged from 60ish percent up to 110% (CSI/CSI:Miami = 63%, Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice = 73%, Law & Order/L&O: SVU = 75%, NCIS/NCIS:LA = 81%, Buffy/Angel = 104%, JAG /NCIS =110%). Sadly I failed to easily find ratings data on Doctor Who/Torchwood, Star Trek, Stargate or Hercules/Xena.


3 thoughts on “To spin-off or not to spin-off

  1. Pingback: Criminal Minds 2 « Narrative Devices

  2. Highlander was quite blatant about the “backdoor pilot” method in their final series: they’d decided to have a spin-off with a female Immortal, so four of the episodes were essentially auditions, and two of them didn’t even include Duncan MacLeod (ostensibly the lead character) at all! Trivia note: the female actresses included Claudia Christian (from B5) and Justina Vail (from Seven Days). As it turned out, they then decided to ignore all four of these and stick with Amanda (existing character, recurring guest star) for the “Raven” spin-off.

    1. That’s quite an interesting approach. I suspect as a viewer though I might find it quite irritating to tune in each week expecting the show I’m familiar with and finding something different. Although of course if that version is something good that I enjoy I won’t mind so much. But it’s hard to make it good when you’re trying to develop an entire new show in the same time you’d usually just have to build a single episode in an established universe. Life is hard all round ;0)

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