The Spin-off Strategy: From Arrowverse to 'The Walking Dead', why AMC, ABC and The CW are banking on offshoots to find success
Spin-offs make sense in many ways. There is usually a rabid fan base for the lead character of the new offering. Plus, a deep canon exists that writers can tap into to provide a boost if and when ratings flag.
A show begins. A breakthrough character appears. Cut to a few years later and the character rides off into the sunset with a spin-off. The formula is a tried and tested one - from 'Cheers' leading into 'Frasier' or 'Angel' setting up shop in L.A., leaving 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and Sunnydale in its rearview mirror.
Spin-offs make sense in many ways. There is usually a rabid fan base for the lead character of the new offering. Plus, a deep canon exists that writers can tap into to provide a boost if and when ratings flag. It could be a cameo from an old cast member (hello Matt Donovan from 'The Vampire Diaries' in 'Legacies') or a narrative that provides a fresh angle to the existing canon.
In part, the early charm of 'Better Call Saul' was the viewer's anticipation of how it would connect to the 'Breaking Bad' timeline. They also serve up the familiar with enough novel beats to cut through any ennui the parent show might have engendered.
'Sheldon', which focussed on the childhood of the eponymous breakthrough character of 'The Big Bang Theory,' is one such instance. Most importantly, they are a guaranteed money-spinner, except for the rare exception like 'Joey'.
But what happens when rather than being a one-off phenomenon, restricted to a few beloved shows, they become the cornerstone of a network's identity? AMC made its name during television’s Golden Age by commissioning epic original series like 'Mad Men' (2007-2015) and 'Breaking Bad' (2008-2013) — shows with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
Then came 'The Walking Dead' in 2010 that the network extended year after year. Its tenth season is set to premiere October 6. The network has been zombified with 'Fear the Walking Dead', a companion series and prequel to the 'The Walking Dead,' now entering its fifth season and there's another untitled spin-off in the works.
In comparison, AMC's 'Preacher', a far more inventive and visually rich series was canceled after the fourth season. Obviously, cancellations and renewals mostly come down to ratings that can justify their production costs. But the network, once known for airing shows that spawned a thousand water-cooler conversations, is now primarily depending on 'The Walking Dead' franchise to stay in the game.
Its other golden goose is also a spin-off - 'Better Call Saul', a Breaking Bad prequel that will premiere its fifth season in 2020. The end result is that the AMC Network is reliving its glory days through spin-offs.
The same motivation seems to drive the franchise gravy train at the Disney-owned ABC. Its entertainment president, Karey Burke, revealed to Hollywood Reporter August 6, she had been trying to harken back to the "great brand-defining shows of ABC, which led narratively and were braver in their construct; shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives and Scandal. And also frankly, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat."
The network is now working on a 'Fresh Off the Boat' spinoff that will feature a new cast of characters and central family. It will also debut 'Mixed-ish', the second spinoff spawned by 'Black-ish'. The decision might have something to do with how well the first spinoff 'Grown-ish' is doing on Freeform with a season three renewal.
Franchises are increasingly becoming a buzzy term for broadcast channels, cable networks and streamers who don't want to lose the captive audience they have built over years, especially when there are hundreds of competing shows. This is why HBO, not willing to lose the popular culture cred that 'Game of Thrones' brought them, has ordered multiple prequels, all in various stages of development. It is the first time HBO, known for its limited-run series, has done this.
But a class apart is The CW, which bases its success on creating connected universes for its teen and young adult audiences. It relies heavily on promoting unity in its programming, creating a buzz through crossovers episodes and relying on actors of established shows to promote and support a new show's initial run by guest-starring or flat-out headlining the spin-off.
The earliest example of this on the channel was Julie Plec's 'The Vampire Diaries' franchise. 'Vampire Diaries' gave birth to 'The Originals', which in turn spawned 'Legacies', each taking off as one ended, expanding the 'Vampire Diaries' universe. And then came the Arrowverse.
Once restricted to a lone series, 'Arrow', the universe now spans 'The Flash', 'Supergirl', 'Legends of Tomorrow' and 'Black Lightning'. 'Batwoman' will be added to the mix in October. Even 'Constantine', the show The CW aired for only one season in 2014, was retroactively fitted into the 'Arrowverse', by making the Constatine character a series regular on 'Legends of Tomorrow'. Waste not, want not.
The channel is set to repeat the miracle of rapidly multiplying shows with 'Riverdale'. With 'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina', originally developed for The CW, already airing on Netflix, next on the cards is 'Katy Keene' starring Lucy Hale.
The franchise phenomenon for TV series is, for now, a fun ride. The CW, in particular, has handled it well by staggering the connected shows in a way that one or the other is usually on air. It also airs its shows on Netflix to encourage their target audience to watch The CW shows as and when they want.
But the worry is the possibility of the fertile television landscape turning into the arid, Hollywood world of franchises, where a giant's cut of resources goes to "safe" multi-movie series and reboots, while story-telling suffers. Hopefully, that day is still far off for television. Fingers crossed.