The made-for-TV couple from this season’s edition of The Bachelor — Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell — will be getting the hottest and most buzzworthy wedding gift that television can give: a spinoff series.
Their new series Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After — premiering this fall on Freeform, sister cable network to The Bachelor’s home of ABC — will join a multitude of spinoffs from successful reality series franchises across the cable dial. In many cases, these off shoots perform as well or better than their parent shows in the ratings.
More than one-third of cable’s top 30 reality shows for the period of June 1, 2015, to May 31, 2016, were reality franchises and their respective extension shows, according to Nielsen. Such extensions, which can potentially cannibalize viewers from their parent series, were once considered a risky play for networks. Now, they are sought-after content with built-in brand recognition and an audience base that can be lured in without a great deal of marketing effort.
“Spinoffs are so big these days because it’s so hard to launch new series today … there’s so much content to choose from and it’s so hard to reach people with new ideas and a new series,” Shari Levine, executive vice president of production for Bravo, said. “When you are doing a spinoff you’re delivering a show to a ready-made viewer that’s somewhat susceptible. You don’t have to explain the concept to them. Half of the marketing is done for you.”
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For some cable franchises just one or two spinoff shows aren’t enough to satisfy the appetite of loyal viewers. Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise — which follows the lives of affluent housewives from various parts of the country — has branded a whopping nine separate series over the past decade.
GETTING HARDER TO ‘KEEP UP’
E! later this year will launch its limited reality series Rob & Chyna, focusing on the lives of celebrity couple Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna, another spinoff from the long-running series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
VH1’s Love & Hip Hop, which chronicles the lives and relationships of hip hop and R&B musicians, has spawned three spinoff series: Love & Hip Hop: New York, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop Hollywood.
And the Atlanta version has spun off two series of its own, K Michelle: My Life and Stevie J & Joseline: Go Hollywood. And despite all the iterations from the original franchise, it seems viewers are singing the praises of virtually all of these series. Current seasons of Love & Hip Hop, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop Hollywood all finished among the top 15 most-watched reality series over the past year, according to Nielsen. The sixth season of parent franchise Love & Hip Hop averaged 3.3 million viewers (on a live-plus-7-day basis), topped only by the fourth season of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, which drew 3.6 million viewers.
Brand recognition is paramount when trying to break through in crowded television marketplace, E! and Esquire Network president Adam Stotsky said. Once a brand is established with viewers, he said, the ability to extend it over a multitude of programs gives networks a leg up on the competition.
E!’s Kardashians empire remains strong and fertile, according to Stotsky. Flagship Keeping Up With the Kardashians is still among the most-watched shows on cable, averaging 2.9 million viewers over the past year, besting all of its franchise extensions, which include I Am Cait, Kim and Khloe Take the Hamptons and Dash Dolls, as well as new series Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian, to launch later this year.
“Given that competitive landscape and the marketing challenges faced in launching new franchises and brands from scratch, working off an existing base where viewers know who these characters are and the world they live in is like makes for an easier entry point for consumers, and alleviates some marketing pressure for the networks,” Stotsky said.
Still, a franchise extension isn’t a slam dunk. Producers must still find a viable new setting, location or character around which to build a spinoff series.
“You have to listen to your audience because they vote with their thumbs on the remote controls everyday,” Stotsky added. “It’s a balancing act — on the one hand, the opportunity to extend versus the risk of cannibalization and oversaturation, and that’s something we monitor.”
Discovery Channel decided to bring back contestants from its popular survival-themed series Naked and Afraid, challenging them to endure a much longer and tougher survival challenge in the buff via sophomore spinoff series Naked and Afraid XL, Denise Contis, executive vice president of development and production for Discovery, said. The result was another hit series for the network, with Naked and Afraid XL garnering 3.8 million viewers during its freshman run, beating out its predecessor’s 2.7 million viewers.
“The spinoff is authentically motivated by the contestants themselves, who are looking to push themselves even further,” Joe Boyle, executive producer of both series, said. “Instead of just that process of learning to work with one other human being, they’re learning to survive and work with a number of other human beings and the ramifications of that. It gives us a much larger playing field in terms of character development.”
EXTENSIONS OF ANOTHER KIND
Other networks are doing more unconventional franchise extensions. AMC, which this July will debut the Stephen David-produced Making of the Mob: Chicago — a spinoff of last year’s Making of the Mob: New York — also looked to basic cable’s top-rated scripted series, zombie thriller The Walking Dead, to beget Talking Dead, the reality genre’s most-watched series over the past year. The live recap talk show, hosted by Chris Hardwick, drew 6.3 million viewers during the period, according to Nielsen.
TV One is doing the complete opposite of AMC: It’s spinning off an episode of Unsung, its unscripted docuseries on popular R&B artists, into an original telefilm. An Unsung episode on the 1990s R&B singer Miki Howard served as the basis for Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story. Its June 12 debut drew more than 2 million viewers across multiple viewings, setting a network ratings record for an original film, said D’Angela Proctor, head of original programming and production for the African-American-targeted TV One.
As long as networks are serving viewers with unique content that fits within the confines of a particular franchise, there’s no such thing as too many spinoff s, Bravo’s Levine said. Along with the Housewives franchise, Bravo has already built multiple shows around such franchises as Million Dollar Listing, Married to Medicine and Below Deck.
“As long as it’s working, there isn’t a limit, but I don’t think you know until you actually do it,” she said.