Will 2012 Fall TV Lineup Follow in the Footsteps of Successful TV Franchises?

October 8, 2012

By Michael Stone, Forbes CMO Network

On the heels of a very unsuccessful 2011 fall TV lineup, television networks are hoping this year’s newly commissioned primetime starters can simply move beyond their pilot episodes and inaugural seasons.  However, those producers with grander aspirations seek more than a contract renewal for a second season. The bar has been raised high in Hollywood and, for some, not reaching the status of entertainment franchise can be considered a failure.  But they must crawl before they can walk.

As ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s The Playboy Clubwill attest, near term hurdles such as generating sustainable ratings and a steady stream of advertising revenue are more difficult to overcome than most people think. Both Mad Men knock offs, which attempted to replicate similar 1960s nostalgia, fell extremely short (The Playboy Club was canceled after only three episodes and Pan Am barely eked through its first season, only to be unceremoniously axed in June 2012). But they weren’t alone – over 15 shows in their first season were wiped from the TV listings last year. Unfortunately, while fear of networks delivering the final coup de grâce to many of Hollywood’s newcomers builds, it’s often forgotten that networks also have the ability to build lucrative entertainment franchises.

Casting out the reality TV genre, (mainly because their fame is fleeting and merchandise success short term), television shows such as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, The Simpsons and Sesame Street are arguably three of the biggest entertainment franchises in history. Though Sesame Street andThe Simpsons are still on the air, the networks’ success at turning them into franchises, specifically through product licensing, will ensure they live on even after the final curtain. That’s not to say that shows are unable to remain popular without licensing after the finale, because Friends and Seinfeld re-runs are still widely viewed. But, building a franchise is much different than merely airing re-runs (even though Star Trek regularly airs past episodes). Would Trekkies be satisfied with simply watching re-runs of the original Star Trekfeaturing William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, or The Next Generation (Star Trek spinoff) with Patrick Stewart without all of the consumer products (including collectibles) that continue to be available at retail?

Well, maybe. They are Trekkies after all.

But, what Trekkies and similarly devout fans crave are additional ways to interact with the brand, which Star Trek delivers on more than any other TV franchise. Since 1966, Star Trek has expanded into virtually every product category imaginable, turning the show into what is essentially a lifestyle. In 2006, the mark of Star Trek’s 40th anniversary, CNBC reported the franchise value to be $4 billion. Thank the Trekkies for that, but also your regular consumers who don’t think about Captain Kirk every day.  The consumer products division of CBS Entertainment does an outstanding job of maintaining the brand’s relevance at retail.

But, Star Trek franchises don’t grow on trees. Sometimes what we’re left with is a Charlie’s Angels reboot and a sci-fi Jurassic Park lookalike (Terranova), which were not the most palatable for viewers.  In my experience, it’s not simply the hit slapstick comedies or crime dramas that turn into franchises. It takes more than that.  Rather, it’s the shows that introduce a universe of characters and story lines, which take root and grow into franchises. Game of Thrones, based on George Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire is quickly blossoming into a franchise that should pay off handsomely for HBO. It is rumored that HBO has already partnered with Dark Horse Delux to produce a line of action figures based on the television series, which will soon premiere its third season. Debuting this fall on the CW is Arrow, a series based on DC Comics’ Green Arrow superhero. DC fans have already shown an unbridled willingness to support their characters at the box office and at retail. If CW is able to translate this support into ratings (the show needs to be good) and eventually merchandise, we could witness a long, fruitful run.

Speaking of introducing universes, what about bringing the whole country music industry to primetime? That is what ABC is doing withNashville, making its series premiere on October 10th. With the cast and show already receiving positive acclaim, Nashville is poised to be an excellent platform for licensing, not only in country inspired apparel and products, but also through the licensing of songs by up-and-coming artists looking for exposure.   Of course, again, the program needs to be a ratings success.  Let’s not put the cart before the horse.

While the success of Arrow and Nashville is ultimately left up to the viewers, both have potential to earn the “franchise tag,” over time (let’s face it, franchises are not automatic and don’t happen in one season). By tapping into the adaptability of comic book franchises and the country music kingdom, the only missing elements are plot twists, story lines and character development. But those are the easy parts, right?  We shall soon see.  Tune in and judge for yourself.