The past couple of weeks have brought forth a lot of news about TV networks developing remakes and reboots of previous series — everything from a “How I Met Your Mother” spinoff to updated versions of “Murder, She Wrote” and “Charmed.”
To date this development season, 32 projects are remakes (either of foreign shows or past U.S. series) or spinoffs. Another 25 are based on books or comics. Those 57 adaptations make up a little over 20 percent of the 250-plus properties in development at the five broadcast networks for 2014-15 season. By comparison, 53 such projects were developed throughout the last development cycle; the current number is likely to grow a little as pilot season continues.
A lot of those projects — most of which are still at the script stage — will never even film a pilot episode, let alone become part of a network’s lineup next season. Between them, the nets will make about 100 pilots, and maybe half of those will get a series greenlight.
Still, the wave of news about reboots, remakes and spinoffs — let’s call them shortcut shows — is a little depressing. The past 15 years or so have been described as a new golden age for TV in part because while the movie business has become ever more of a corporate enterprise, television — cable especially, but the broadcast networks to a good degree as well — has been a place where original storytelling and risk-taking was welcomed and encouraged.
That isn’t looking like the case as much anymore. As viewership spreads to more outlets than ever before and the old broadcast model becomes imperiled in the face of changing technology and changing habits, TV development is starting to look an awful lot like the movie business, where at the big-studio level pre-sold franchises and risk aversion seem to be the guiding principles.
But just as in the film business, where for every “Avengers” there’s a “Lone Ranger,” in TV reboots and remakes have on balance not really proven to be great business. For every “Hawaii Five-0,” “Battlestar Galactica” or “The Office,” there’s more than one “Charlie’s Angels,” “Knight Rider” or “Coupling.”
None of this is to say that networks and cable channels should only rely on original stories for their content — there are plenty of duds on that front as well. Spinoffs and adaptations have part of the fabric of TV since the earliest days of the medium, when some radio shows made the jump to presenting pictures with their words.
The most-watched scripted show on broadcast TV, “NCIS,” is a spinoff. So is the longest-running one, “The Simpsons.” Television would be a poorer place without “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Vampire Diaries,” all of which sprang from literary sources.
But the movie-fication of the development process — again, we’re primarily talking about the broadcast networks, but some of the risk-averse mindset has creeped into cable as well — should be troubling for fans of good TV.
Broadcast networks may have ceded the equivalent of Oscar-bait movies by and large to cable channels, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in chasing the TV analog to a tentpole movie by attempting to exploit their libraries (a la NBC’s failed “Ironside” remake) or a big property from a corporate cousin (ABC’s thus far underwhelming “Agents of SHIELD”), networks, like their movie-studio counterparts, are underserving an audience looking for well-made, original comedies and dramas. It’s getting difficult to imagine something as ambitious as “Lost” or as quirky as “Gilmore Girls” finding a home on a broadcast network today.
What’s really frustrating is that we know the broadcast networks are still capable of stepping up. “Sleepy Hollow” and “The Blacklist” may not be Emmy bait, but they’re solidly crafted (and fun) examples of what network TV can be. You could say the same for a couple of other relatively young shows like “Elementary,” “Chicago Fire” and “Person of Interest” — buzzwords like “groundbreaking” or “edgy” might not apply, but they turn out well-crafted stories (and decent ratings) week after week while treating their audiences with respect.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?