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Spin-offs, the redheaded stepchild of the TV industry

By Bert Ehrmann
2006-05-22 –A few weeks back, the Sci Fi Channel announced a spin-off of their popular Battlestar Galactica series entitled Caprica was in the works, while last winter the BBC announced a show called Torchwood would be spun-off of their Doctor Who series.

According to the Sci Fi Channel, Caprica will (sic) “take place more than a half century before the events of Battlestar Galactica where a startling breakthrough in robotics will create the first living robot: a Cylon.”

BBC calls Torchwood a series about (sic) “a renegade bunch of investigators charged to find alien technology that has fallen to Earth.”

Television over the last 25 years has been marked (or is it marred?) by the “spin-off.” All genera of shows have experimented with the spin-off (four different Star Trek series alone) to varying degrees of success. Though everyone might have heard of The Facts of Life (1979), a spin-off of Diff'rent Strokes (1978), who will remember the Friends (1994) spin-off Joey (2004) in a decade or two?

Generally, the spin-off series takes characters, locations and/or storylines from an already popular show and tries to “spin them off” into a whole new series, where the thinking seems to be “whatever’s generating good ratings can be spun-off into more shows and hopefully even more good ratings.

Take Frasier (1993), where the character of Frasier Crane from Cheers (1982) leaves the bar scene in Boston for Seattle and a gig as a host of a radio call-in program. Frasier was a successful attempt at extending some of the characters and storylines of Cheers after Cheers was set to end its run. Combined, these two series aired for a staggering 22-years, meaning a very big payday for all those involved in an industry where even successful shows only last five to seven years.

Over the decades, a multitude of series has been spun out of other popular shows. Both The Jeffersons (1975) and Maude (1972) were spun-out of All in the Family (1971). Louise and George Jefferson were next-door neighbors of the Bunkers until they became unexpectedly wealthy and moved into a “deluxe apartment in the sky” and their very own show, while Maude focused on Edith Bunker’s cousin. Then, the series Good Times (1974) was spun-out of Maude — a spin-off of a spin-off as it was.

Happy Days (1974) spun-out two successful shows – Laverne and Shirley (1976) and Mork & Mindy (1978). Laverne and Shirley were friends of The Fonz (Ayyyyeee) while Mork made an appearance in 1950s Happy Days before traveling in time to 1970’s Colorado.

Even the Fox juggernaut The Simpsons (1989) was originally an animated short in the Tracey Ullman Show (1987) before being spun-off into its own series. Over 300 episodes later The Simpsons are still going strong, but who really remembers Tracy Ullman’s show?

But in the modern gladiatorial arena that is television, few series can claim to have perfected the spin-off to a science like the Law & Order and CSI.

Originally debuting in 1990, the Law & Order formula follows detectives investigating a crime and that crime making its way through the judicial system. So successful this recipe is that three spin-off series have followed – L&O: Special Victims Unit (1999), L&O: Criminal Intent (2001) and L&O: Trial By Jury (2005).

CSI began life on CBS focusing on crime scene investigators in Las Vegas. Rather than toying with a lucrative thing, show producers opted to change the characters and location rather than plot. What followed was CSI: Miami (2002) and CSI: New York (2004).

So successful is the CSI franchise that each of the three shows regularly debut in the top ten weekly television ratings. Recently CSI: Miami was declared to be the “most watched U.S. series around the world,” which is impressive until you remember that at one point Baywatch was the “most watched U.S. series around the world.”

And its spin-off, Baywatch Nights? Not so much…