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Why the Sitcom Spinoff Isn’t Coming Back

Dwight Schrute's Office spin-off was not to be.

The news that NBC has opted against moving forward with The Farm, the Dwight-centric spinoff of The Office, marks the latest bit of bad news for what was once one of TV's most common genres. Ever since 1960, when CBS enlisted M*A*S*H's future Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) to move his December Bride character of Pete Porter to a new show called Pete and Gladys, networks have been exploiting their most successful sitcoms by creating new shows engineered from the DNA of those hits. But while the practice is still fairly common with TV dramas, sitcom spinoffs have become increasingly rare: The last major-network comedy to transplant a regular character into a new show was Fox's Family Guy, which begat The Cleveland Show in 2009. TV's comedy drought of the aughts, which saw some networks struggling to put together even a single night of sitcoms, helps explain why the spinoff went dormant. But with comedy presence ascendant again — six are currently battling each other Tuesdays from 9-10 p.m. — there's once again plenty of raw material from which to create Schmidt Happens or Being Barney. However, the changing nature of TV comedy, as well as the never-ending fragmentation of the small-screen audience, might make a new golden age of spinoffs unlikely.

Comedy spinoffs used to be omnipresent across the dial (back when all of the networks could fit on a single dial). While few remember Pete and Gladys, one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history — The Andy Griffith Show — began life as an episode of The Danny Thomas Show. The form probably reached its apex during the seventies, when comedy titans such as Norman Lear and Garry Marshall perfected the art. Lear's All in the Family led to Maude and The Jeffersons, which both eventually got their own spinoffs for their respective family's maids, Florida (Good Times) and Florence (Checking In). Yes, spinoffs of spinoffs! Marshall was even more successful at the art. He used a segment of his sixties anthology series Love, American Style to showcase what would ultimately become Happy Days. And once Happy Days was a hit unto itself on ABC, Marshall began cranking out offshoots: Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi, Out of the Blue, Blanksy's Beauties. James L. Brooks was also a prolific spinoffer. His Mary Tyler Moore Show led to the well-received Rhoda and Lou Grant (a drama, but still a spinoff of a comedy), as well as the less-successful (but not awful) Phyllis (it lasted 48 episodes). He also took the animated interstitial characters from his Fox sketch series The Tracey Ullman Show and gave them The Simpsons.

It's important to note that there are two kind of spinoffs. Planted spinoffs are vehicles by which producers introduce a character (Maude Findlay; Out of the Blue's guardian angel, who protected Chachi from the devil) into an existing series with the planned intention of launching a new show built around him or her. And so the producers of All in the Family constructed an episode introducing the world to Archie's heretofore unseen liberal cousin who would then move to Maude; Garry Marshall had Chachi visited by a guardian angel named Random, the same character who'd star in Out of the Blue; and the brain trust at Married with Children constructed an episode that introduced to the world two guys named Charlie (Joseph Bologna) and Vinnie (a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc), all to make way for the short-lived Top of the Heap. Meanwhile, the character-based spinoff takes a recurring or regular figure from a show (Louise Jefferson, Joanie Cunningham, Flo from Alice, Sheriff Lobo from B.J. and the Bear) and puts them in a new situation. While we haven't run the numbers, the latter type of spinoff is probably the most dominant in TV history and most likely to yield a hit. Character-based spinoffs are also more successful because audiences have already formed a bond with the characters moving into a different world (or, A Different World). Of course, oftentimes the character being spun off isn't particularly integral to the parent series: Family Matters was based on a small recurring character from Perfect Strangers, elevator operator Harriette Winslow (Jo Marie Peyton). Likewise, Carla Tortelli's annoying ex-husband Nick was only a sporadic presence on Cheers before NBC ordered up the ill-fated The Tortellis.

However, while character-based spinoffs had better odds, they were hardly infallible. Sure, Frasier went on to become almost as successful as Cheers, and The Facts of Life may actually be more iconic now than the show from which it originated, Diff'rent Strokes. But the eighties also saw many failed spinoffs, some of which didn't even get past the pilot stage. NBC really wanted to give Scott Valentine a show based on his Family Ties character of Nick Moore (Mallory's boyfriend), but the Bruce Helford–produced The Art of Being Nick never got off the ground (despite such an amazing title!). After M*A*S*H, unfortunately, did get off the ground, but it crashed almost from the start, since, amazingly, nobody wanted to see Father Mulcahy fight alcoholism or Klinger not wearing a dress. (Thankfully, CBS wisely opted not to order a series version of another M*A*S*H spinoff, the unbelievably titled Radar-centric W*A*L*T*E*R).

But over the past decade, we've seen very few spinoffs. As a shorthand explanation, some cite the failure of Friends continuation Joey back in 2004 as killing any remaining momentum for the form. But that's too simplistic of a fall guy. As mentioned earlier, the fact that TV comedies became something of an endangered species at the start of the 21st century has to be considered a prime suspect in any investigation of what killed the sitcom spinoff. After all, other genres of TV show that have expanded in the last decade rather than constricted have led to many spinoffs. Law & Order and CSI yielded so many iterations that they're no longer called "spinoffs" but "brand extensions" that are part of a "franchise." There've been plenty of other drama spinoffs in recent years, from NCIS: Cool J and the Grey's Anatomy–birthed Private Practice to the short-lived Bones offshoot, The Finder. And reality TV producers are now so craven with spinning shows off that Garry Marshall would likely blush at their efforts: The Bachelor begat The Bachelorette, Jersey Shore has multiplied into several other shows, the Kardashians keep breeding, and Toddlers & Tiaras resulted in the even more popular Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.

But the last two seasons have demonstrated that TV comedy is no longer an ailing genre. What's preventing a rush of spinoffs now may simply be this: While there are now a decent number of half-hour comedies on the air, very few are broad enough or boast high enough ratings to merit new extensions. From Community and Parks and Recreation to Happy Endings and Raising Hope, network schedules are filled with half-hours that exist simply because networks know they probably could do even worse in the ratings, and not because the shows are mass hits. And what of those shows that do have relatively big audiences? Well, two regimes at NBC clearly thought The Office might be able to support a continuation. Ben Silverman (a producer of The Office even before he took over NBC Entertainment) worked with Greg Daniels to birth a spinoff all the way back in 2008, but the project never moved forward and ultimately morphed into what became Parks and Recreation. More recently, Bob Greenblatt gave the go-ahead for The Farm, but seemed to realize that he'd waited too long; his support for the idea seemed to wane almost simultaneously with the ratings decline of The Office. The project was originally meant to be a stand-alone pilot, industry insiders have told Vulture. But by last spring, producer Paul Lieberstein told us the plan had changed and that the spinoff would now be shot as an episode of The Office, thus saving NBC money: The network could then sell ads on the "pilot" and reap syndication profit from the additional half-hour of the show. We haven't seen the finished product for The Farm, but it doesn't seem completely coincidental that news of NBC's passing came just days after the show aired its least-watched original episode yet (4 million in same-day eyeballs).

And that leaves us with the handful of hit comedies that would, in different times, appear to be ready to spawn spinoffs. ABC's Modern Family remains the most logical candidate for an offshoot. Indeed, a veteran from the glory days of spinoffs — Fred Silverman, who ran ABC, NBC, and CBS at different times in his career — told Variety two years ago that he could already imagine what said sequel would be: "Mitchell and Cam." "They probably could take the gay couple and move 'em into an adjacent time period and have crossovers and basically have an hour show," Silverman told the trade. "I'm sure they've thought of it." But doing so might also very easily screw up the chemistry of Modern Family, tinkering with a formula that's given ABC its first comedy hit in years and producer 20th Century Fox TV a syndication powerhouse. In past decades, networks and studios might not have been as concerned about taking a gamble on a spinoff since the stakes were a little lower: There was less competition for eyeballs, and hits seemed to be more common. And when a spinoff failed, you could just, say, bring Joanie, Chachi, and their love back to Happy Days with no harm done. But in today's more delicate and tenuous ratings world, what network wants to risk ruining a rare comedy hit by greedily spinning it off? Even CBS, which boasts more comedy hits than any other broadcast network, has been cautious with spinoffs: It's so far avoided the seemingly obvious Neil Patrick Harris series or Big Bang Theory spinoff focused on Mayim Bialik's character.

TV Land recently aired a planted spinoff of its hit Hot in Cleveland, Cedric the Entertainer's The Soul Man. TV Land's determination to live in yestercentury's sitcom world makes it hard to take this as any kind of evidence of today's reality (also: Soul Man totally bombed in the ratings). And yet, as CBS's hits move closer to the end of their runs (particularly HIMYM, which has, at most, one more season left), we wouldn't be surprised if the idea of a spinoff gets some serious consideration. After all, these shows may end up being the last in a generation of mass-appeal comedy hits: Newer success stories such as New Girl and 2 Broke Girls are actually losing viewers in their second season and probably won't end up anywhere near as popular as their predecessors, even in key demo groups. With Comedy Central, Adult Swim, FX, and Internet channels allowing for a greater niche-ification of comedy — Tosh.0 and South Park draw more young men than most network comedies — it might actually make sense for programmers to start trying to find a way to extend the lifespans of their last remaining Big Comedy Hits, before they completely go away. Start jockeying CBS executives, Angus T. Jones: It may not be too late to pitch Half Man.

Photo: NBC