The Logic of Safety: A Look Into Television Programming

The logic of safety is the most important factor when programming television.

Television programs are not usually noted for their narrative complexity (Bellamy). The first time viewer could make faulty assumptions based on viewing only a single episode of a TV series. Television has the daunting task of having to put forth new episodes on a weekly basis. Thus, the television viewing experience is enhanced by the “memory of previous episodes” (Newcomb).

The “spin-off” has been a technique in television since the 1960s. Having familiar characters and/or situational aspects in a series gives a greater chance of success. In order to exploit and extend the popularity of a TV show, networks and producers take certain aspects of one series and transform it into another series (Bellamy). This method can be seen in three different forms: the spin-off, globalization, and thematic repetition.

“Familiarity breeds acceptability” (Hobson). In such a highly competitive business, success is seen few and far between. A “hit” series and its production team is valued to the point that every successful program is seen as a potential parent series (Bellamy).

Television remakes like 90210, feature past characters that have grown up and continued their story arcs (off screen) to have minor roles in the new spin offs. For instance, some of the original high school students in Beverly Hills 90210 now play teachers, parents, or guidance counselors. It’s an easy way to attract the original fans and still pull in a fresh, new audience. It’s an appropriate mix of the old and the new. While 90210 may not be as much of a success as the original, it did, however, make it to a 4th season (Internet Movie Database).

Because viewers invite characters into their homes every week, they become more intimately attached to the actors and style of a series. Television executive, Grant Tinker stated that such spin-off’s are created solely because of the “popularity of the characters” (Personal Communications, January 18, 1979). Unlike film, which has seen an abundant amount of current remakes, where an audience views it once, then leaves it at the door. A television audience cannot be tricked into believing new actors are the same or similar characters they once loved.

ABC’s “Charlie’s Angles was billed to be a modern day remake of the 1970s original. After airing only four episodes, ABC quickly cut the girls from prime time. The original Angles series, which also aired on ABC survived five seasons on the air. In 2000, Charlie’s Anglels hit the big screen. It, along with the sequel had phenomenal box office results grossing well over $500,000,000 according to the Internet Movie Database. Needless to say, Americans are familiar with the concept and are eager to invest. That being said, how is it then possible to fail? The concept has been around for half a century. Television critic, Ken Tucker noticed, “the show took more influence from the Angels movies, than it did from the 1970s TV series.”

However, the spin-off only contains some of the ingredients of it’s parent series, both internally (characters, situations, etc.) and externally. (time slot, network, etc.) This lack of “ingredients” can handicap a spin-off to the point of cancellation. The average run of a spin-off series is 2.39 seasons; some don’t even last a full season (Bellamy).

“No remake of a previous hit series has ever become a hit itself on network television” (Carter). Plenty have tried. In recent years there have been efforts to revive both Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place on the CW network. Few would claim either approaches the success of their predecessors, or even passable hit status. Even though a concept is pre-sold, it doesn’t guarantee success.

In the article Invention/Re-invention, author Miguel Mera examines the relationship between texts that are re-invented for different media and/or contexts including film remakes, prequels and sequels, video games that become films and vice versa, and television series that move across geographical borders. Mera stresses the importance balance between re-invention and exploration within the guidelines you build for yourself. “There must first be a comforting or familiar framework that is then elaborated upon with ingenuity and skill. Successful re-inventions are both predictable and unpredictable. In order to be fully appreciated the audience must know the source” (Mera 12).  A TV show only gets one pilot. There, they can introduce the who, what, where, when and why; or the framework. After that, it’s their job to invent and explore within that world. For television remakes, it’s very easy to become dependent on the success of it’s preceder. In the case of Charlie’s Angels, two remakes were produced. Two separate mediums: film and television. One has success, the other, not so much. Flops will happen, but it’s important to examine the greater risk involved with remaking something on television.

Despite this premeditated success factored into spin-offs, shows like the now defunct Charlie’s Angels and Melrose Place failed quickly after airing. Television series like The Office may be the exception to this rule. However, a large majority of US audiences had not been exposed to the British version of The Office. This would explain the discrepancy.

Popular shows such as Dancing With The Stars and American Idol have roots in British television. It was the soar-away success of The Office that encouraged US networks to take the risk on remaking more expensive drama and comedy formats. Why take a risk while trying to get your show produced, when you know that somewhere else on this planet, a large group of people reacted positively to this show?

One dimension of the globalization of television is the remaking of fictional series in countries beyond their country of origin (Griffin). The remaking of television programs for viewers in another country is referred to as “the globalization of content” (Turner). The idea is that if a show is successful in one country, then there is a greater chance of success than if a network were to create a new show from scratch. If a show performs well in one country, it could do so in another.

What differentiates this method from typical spin-offs or remakes is that there is some level of adaptation. By adapting the original for local audiences, producers are able to make adjustments to better situate the show within the context of local culture (Griffin). In the 1970s, audiences responded positively to British remakes such as All in the Family (CBS, 1971–83), Sanford and Son (NBC, 1972–77), and Three’s Company (ABC, 1977–84).

Despite those successes, U.S. networks did not return to Britain for inspiration until the mid-1990s. Since then, more than a dozen remakes of British series have been aired by American broadcast and cable networks (Griffin 155). In 2004, the British version of The Office, came overseas and redefined what it meant to Globalize a television program.

Although format adaptations have inherent advantages, success is far from guaranteed. As Steemers points out, “Nor are formats a complete solution for overcoming cultural discount and the industrial and cultural barriers in national markets. In America, for example, the adaptation of scripted formats for the networks in the 1990s has yet to deliver a sustained hit in an intensely competitive market for network programmes” (Steemers 212). The Office, which is currently in its eighth season, defies that assessment (Internet Movie Database).

What made the American version of The Office such a success was that it didn’t rely solely on the original show for inspiration. NBC’s version has forged it’s own identity and has achieved notable success (Griffin 155). Cultural differences lessens the appeal of foreign programming – a phenomenon known as “cultural discount” (Hoskin). A show can find it’s inspiration from it’s parent series, but to find long-term success, it must find it’s cultural appeal. By adapting the original for local audiences, producers are able to make adjustments to better situate the show within the context of local culture (Griffin 156).

A good amount of “classic American television” has come from over seas. Sanford and Son, originally titled Steptoe And Son, was originally a UK sitcom before lasting 6 seasons on American television. Similarly, show such as The Office, Three’s Company, Whose Line is it Anyway, All in the Family, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, all share roots in English television and have all lasted at least eight seasons on American television. American Idol, which originated in England has lasted 11 seasons on American prime time (Internet Movie Database). The show pushed Fox to become the number one TV network amongst adult 18–49, the key demographic coveted by advertisers, for an unprecedented seven consecutive years by 2011 (Gorman).

Some shows have discovered a likeness or theme to popular television shows that can be exploited for viewers and popularity. Take for instance a brief comparison of Seinfeld and the newly popular FX comedy Louie. They both focus around stand-up comedians. The shows plots are inspired by their stand-up routine. At the beginning and end of both shows, we see the comedians performing their stand-up. Series which have general situational orientation of a previously existing series are situational spin-off (Bellamy).  By no means are the two shows similar in their story, but it’s an observation of a pattern in television between two popular shows in different eras of television.

The likeness in theme is cultural and is ever changing. Popular themes can be seen over the spectrum of television and has a huge influence on television programming. Since every scheduling move potentially is worth millions of dollars to the networks and affiliates, a conservative approach of relying on existing and successful characters, situations, and producers for a “new” product is a major feature of the modus operandi of programming executives (Bellamy).

Similarly, Seinfeld inspired the ever-popular HBO spin-off Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the entire plot is the life of the creator of Seinfeld, Larry David. In this, we can see that the character (Larry David) and the theme (Seinfeld producer) have already proven to be popular and thus, network executives are willing to invest in the production. I’m curious to see what response the new Sex in the City prequel will be. It won’t be the same cast, in fact, they’ll be younger and sexier which seems to sell as of recently.

There is a very intimate relationship between television and it’s viewers. Audiences return to watch week after week with certain expectations. In the world of film and television, remakes and spin-offs are very popular and important when analyzing television’s behavior. What’s the difference? Well a spin-off usually has the same characters and a different story. Whereas, a remake normally consists of the same characters and the same story. What’s the similarity? The logic of safety – in that networks and producers are more likely to take a chance on a pre-sold concept than an original idea.

The logic of safety can be seen through spin-offs, globalize programs, and thematic repetition. Although, success is not guaranteed, formatting a show around pre-sold concepts is the most important factor when programming television.

Works Cited

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Björn, Schuller, Hage Clemens, Schuller Dagmar, and Rigoll Gerhard. “‘Mister D.J., Cheer Me Up!’: Musical and Textual Features for Automatic Mood Classification.” Journal of New Music Research 31.1 (2010): 13-34. Off-Campus Access. Routledge, Mar. 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://ehis.ebscohost.com.emils.lib.colum.edu/eds/detail?vid=29>.

Carter, Bill. “Why Studios Keep Cranking Out TV Remakes, Despite the Flops.” NYtimes.com. New York Times, 27 Dec. 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/28/business/media/28remakes.html>.

Fallon, Kevin. “TV’s History of Failed Remakes – Kevin Fallon – Entertainment – The Atlantic.” Theatlantic.com. The Atlantic, 15 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/08/tvs-history-of-failed-remakes/243609/>.

Griffin, Jeffry. “The Americanization of The Office: A Comparison of the Offbeat NBC Sitcom and Its British Predecessor.” International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 2008. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Martin, Daniel. “Shameless Remake Set for US TV Debut | Television & Radio | The Guardian.” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian, 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/07/shameless-remake-us-tv-debut>.

Moeller, Kelly. “Same Character, Different Show; It’s a Spin-off! – ABC News.” ABCNews.com. ABC, 10 June 2008. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Television/story?id=5016964>.

Moran, Albert. “Television Formats in the World/the World of Television Formats.” Moran and Keane, Television 1–8.

Nellie, Andreeva. “Maria Bello To Star In NBC’s Prime Suspect.” Deadline. PMC, 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.deadline.com/2011/02/maria-bello-to-star-in-nbcs-prime-suspect/>.