To Spin Off Or Not Spin Off? The Risks & Rewards of Reality TV Franchises – Emmys

Prolific reality producer Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch, Storage Wars) has a producing mantra he borrowed from Ted Turner during Beers’ 11 years with Turner Broadcasting.

“You look at a television show like a cow,” Beers tells Deadline. “Our job is to make money on every piece of that cow, including the moo.”

Turner’s philosophy could apply to today’s reality television.  The genre seems to spawn spinoff franchises (read: spinoff profit) as fast as scripted series TV.

And they do it with much less blood spatter than their scripted counterparts. Many of today’s successful franchises in scripted TV deal with crime. Law & Order begat Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and other Law & Order spinoffs; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation spawned a host of CSI’s including the latest, CSI: Cyber and NCIS led to NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans.

the bacheloretteIn contrast, today’s successful reality franchises traffic in romance, tears, outsized personalities and real life family intrigue. They include ABC’s The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County/New York City/Atlanta/New Jersey/Washington D.C./Beverly Hills.

Nicole "Snooki" and Jenni "Jwoww"

Several new series have been born to help you keep up with the Kardashian clan since the original Keeping Up With The Kardashians began in 2007. And who could forget MTV’s Jersey Shore (2009-2012), which gave rise to Snooki and JWoww and the short-lived Pauly D Project?

Do reality series launch with the idea of spinoffs — selling the “moo,” if you will?  Several reality producers say it’s hard to be that scientific when developing a new concept.

“Oh, no — that’s magic,” says Robert Mills, senior VP alternative series, specials and late night programming for ABC. “For the most part you are just hoping that the mothership really works.”

Not all producers agree. Rasha Drachkovitch, president of 44Blue Productions (Emmy-nominated Wahlburgers, Donnie Loves Jenny, Lockup and its spinoffs Lockup: Raw, Lockup: World Tour and Life After Lockup) says spinoff may not the first thing on a producer’s mind but it runs a close second.

“Producers and networks want perennial shows, not ‘one-and-done’ series,” he says. “We have to make sure the material we are developing has depth and the ability to expand in new areas, i.e. spinoffs.”

Franchising reality may have been less on the radar when The Bachelor launched back in 2003. “You have to remember it was in the early days of the reality boom,” Mills says.  “At that point, you were just looking at big ideas . . . that you couldn’t normally do in scripted.  And this was one: A guy dating 25 women.”

bachelor in paradiseMills says there was no concept of a Bachelorette until popular contender Trista Rehn became Bachelor runner-up in the show’s first season.  “People were really upset. They wanted to see this girl get a chance at love,” Mills says.  Rhen became the first Bachelorette and went on marry her bachelor choice, Ryan Sutter. Additional Bachelor spinoffs include Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise (the second of which featured another fan favorite Bachelorette contender, Jason Scott Mesnick). The first did not last but the second season of the successful Bachelor in Paradise begins in August.

Mills believes neither The Bachelor nor The Bachelorette would have lasted so long on concept alone.   “When the novelty wore off, we had to turn it into from an idea — a guy dates 25 women — into a soap opera,” he says.

The executive says the same philosophy was at work in spinning off Emmy Award winner Shark Tank into Beyond The Tank, which follows the progress of some of Shark Tank’s aspiring entrepreneurs. “(The audience) wanted to see the  (personal) stories play out.  The cardinal rule of (reality franchises) is to be able to tell a different story,” Mills says.

real housewives of orange countyShari Levine, executive vice president of production for Bravo — home of the Housewives franchise — says it quickly became clear that Real Housewives of Orange County could expand their real estate without losing the element of surprise. She says the same is true of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing, which started in Los Angeles but now has spinoffs set in New York, Miami and San Francisco.

“We’ve had an intense debate every time we’ve added a newcomer, is it (too many), “says Levine of Housewives. “I don’t think we know what the end or the limit is.” Each city and housewife group introduces new local culture and characters, she adds. “People get very committed to the first one . . . you have to give them a reason to go to the next one.  It (has to be) similar and yet very different.”

 Levine adds that differing real estate markets add a new element to Million Dollar Listing, which began in Los Angeles but now has franchises exploring New York, Miami and San Francisco.

barry'd treasureToo much similarity seems to breed franchise failure. Take venerable A&E’s Storage Wars. While the original series remains a successful presence the air, Storage Wars Texas (2011) and Storage Wars New York (2013) are dead. So is Barry’d Treasure (2014) an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Storage Wars favorite Barry Weiss as he roamed the country looking for valuable antiques and collectibles.

Is it better to find a reality show with franchise potential or that one big hit?  It’s a different equation for each show and each network, says Elaine Frontain Bryant, A&E executive vice president and head of programming.

“It’s great to have sort of bench players that are really going to stay there and stabilize your schedule,” says Bryant.  “Spinoffs can do that because even if they don’t hit or beat your main player you know they are going to get a pretty good percentage of what the originals did.”

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