TV's Top Shows Are Becoming Ever-Growing Universes

In the competition for viewers (and subscribers), networks and streamers alike are taking a page from the film business and looking for proven IP in a bid to create a universe of multiple TV series (and movies).
AMC/Photofest; Victoria Will/AMC
"Breaking Bad" (left) and "The Walking Dead"

As more small-screen franchises are created in an attempt to stand out in the ever-growing "peak TV" era — 520 originals and counting — those expanded television universes also are increasingly taking a multipronged storytelling approach.

AMC is making three big-budget, feature-length Walking Dead TV movies starring Andrew Lincoln, as Sony Pictures TV plots a Breaking Bad movie, rumored to be a two-hour sequel, with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, sources say. And Michelle Yeoh joins Patrick Stewart as another Star Trek captain who may get a series in a CBS All Access universe that includes an animated comedy and shortform entry Short Treks.

"The franchise strategy in many respects is an extension of the spinoff strategy but done on a grander scale," ICM Partners co-managing director Ted Chervin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The idea of having a one-off hit is a great thing, but a hit that spawns additional valuable IP is better."

Reboots and spinoffs of well-known series provide a cash infusion to their corporate owners by generating new revenue streams in areas like licensing fees and merchandising. What's more, they do not require as hefty a marketing budget as a new show would need to cut through the cluttered landscape.

Hence, Netflix and Amazon each shelled out nine figures to land rights for the sprawling Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings franchises, respectively, with the larger goal of creating multiple films and series out of both iconic properties.

HBO is plotting multiple Game of Thrones prequels as Hulu looks to author George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards to create multiple new series. Additionally, Lionsgate TV is mulling a potential Orange Is the New Black sequel. Established properties are useful for launching entire services, too; see CBS All Access' Star Trek strategy and upcoming streamer Disney+'s plans for Marvel and Star Wars shows. Not to be outdone, NBC is plotting yet another spinoff from Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchise.

Says AMC's recently promoted head of programming David Madden: "It's hard to get attention for anything, so when you have a title that bears meaning because it's connected to a franchise or meaningful IP, why wouldn't you want to take advantage of it?" 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.