In the early 1990s, when NBC's Seinfeld became a surprise hit after struggling to find an audience for four seasons, all the major television networks immediately stood up and took notice. Then they took notes, jotting down the various comedic nuances that made the show such a critical and commercial success.
What followed was a bevy of talking-heads sitcoms revolving around the lives and loves of young, quip-happy urbanites. Some, like Friends and Mad About You, emerged to become long-running hits, while others, like The Single Guy, fizzed out after a few seasons. But they all had one thing in common: They tried desperately to replicate an appealing recipe that caught the fancy of viewers. And they're still trying to do that today, whatever the genre, and despite the erratic results.
A popular -- and well-founded -- adage is that nobody really knows what will be a hit, said Amanda Lotz, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and the author of The Television Will Be Revolutionized. So it's a reasonable strategy to reproduce something that was a hit before.
Reasonable as it may be, the strategy of cloning can be costly for networks. Consider two recent attempts to capitalize on the success of AMC's Mad Men: ABC's Pan Am and NBC's The Playboy Club. Both were stylish, heavily hyped dramas set in the swinging 1960s, and yet both turned out to be embarrassing and expensive flops.
But some networks are finding a solution to the problem of high-risk cloning in the form of television's enduring, cheap-to-produce standby: reality shows. AMC, for instance, had for years been looking to capitalize on its own Mad Men success. But rather than go down the same uncertain -- and pricey -- road of the Big Four broadcasters, the modest cable network opted to air The Pitch, a reality competition set in the world of modern-day advertising.
Following a conventional reality show format, The Pitch pits various ad agencies against each other in a race to land a big account from major brands such as Subway. The show's ratings were dismally low, but that didn't seem to matter. The Pitch came so cheaply that AMC still aired all eight of its first-season episodes, despite the fact that it attracted less than 300,000 viewers -- a pittance compared to Mad Men's 2.6 million viewers.
I'm not surprised at all that it didn't do well, said Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News and the author of the 2010 book Reality Bites Back.
Pozner studied the ins and outs of the reality-TV business for 10 years before writing her book, but she has since become burned out on the genre and discovered a renewed interest in scripted programing. She says that given the opportunity for product placement, a reality pairing with Mad Men was a logical, if misguided, step. The only reason reality TV exists in the first place is to create a synergy with advertisers through product placement, she explained. 'Mad Men' is one of the few scripted shows that integrates product placement in a way that is completely unobtrusive. But AMC saw its popularity as, 'oh, look -- people really like to watch Don Draper sell things.' What they didn't realize was that people who tuned in to this dense psychological drama that deals with politics and gender roles weren't going to stick around just to watch people sell things on a reality show.
Nevertheless, as Pozner points out, AMC isn't the only network to adopt this new philosophy of risk-free cloning. Oxygen's The Glee Project, a reality competition that gives winners a guest spot on the Fox comedy Glee, has been up and running for over a year. The network is also set to premiere I'm Having Their Baby, a reality show about moms giving up their unborn kids for adoption. That show's timing is flawless, given the high profile of NBC's upcoming comedy The New Normal, which centers on a woman who becomes a surrogate mother to a gay couple.
Perhaps the grandmother of reality spin-offs, though, is Bravo's The Real Housewives series, which premiered in 2006 as an unscripted riff on ABC's Desperate Housewives but has since become a brand in its own right. The Glee Project has been similarly successful for Oxygen, according to Cori Abraham, the network's senior vice president of development. This show has been key in helping Oxygen find its audience, Abraham said. From a production standpoint, it's been a thrill to watch the winners from season one fulfill their prize and appear on 'Glee.'
While the majority of cloned shows will not enjoy that kind of success, TV insiders note that the same holds true for any genre, no matter how original the show. There are always more failures than successes in TV, said Robert Thompson, a media scholar and founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. That's why you have these people who are constantly trying to make a science out of something that isn't a science.
A Time-Honored Practice
Even during the Seinfeld era, attempts to replicate the formula of a popular show were nothing new. The medium was still in its infancy when, in the 1950s, TV producers first saw the runaway success of The $64,000 Question and tried to recreate that magic with a flurry of high-stakes quiz shows. While replicating a hit show can undoubtedly yield profitable results (Dynasty ripped off Dallas in 1981 and went on to enjoy an eight-year run), the practice as a whole seems to produce far more misses than hits, particularly in today's era of increasingly fragmented viewing habits.
The problem, Thompson says, is that poor attempts at cloning often overlook key ingredients of a popular show's recipe. The networks look at a show like 'Mad Men' and see it's set in the 1960s, he noted. So they all go out and do these shows set in the 1960s. But that's only a small part of 'Mad Men's' success.
Of course, scripted programs such as Mad Men and Glee are different animals than unscripted fare. These shows tell stories with actors, well-crafted dialogue and careful cinematography. Watching them is an entirely different experience -- which raises the question of whether pairing them with the choppy editing and melodramatic ambiance of reality competitions will cheapen their brand. Thompson, for one, doesn't think so, nor does he think that such pairings will create the crossover synergy that networks are hoping for. It's really two different audiences, he said.
Pozner agrees that crossover audiences are unlikely, but she disagrees that networks don't run the risk of distilling the brands of their hit shows with reality counterparts. They do cheapen it, she said. These shows completely miss the basic reason why people like traditional television.
Still, given their inexpensive price tag, reality clones are likely here to stay. The risk is low and the potential payoff high, and in the gambling-like world of TV production, those are about the best odds producers can ask for. As Pozner put it: They are a logical step, but I don't think they're the right step.