The Walking Dead, Star Trek, and the rise of the TV mega-franchise


There are six Walking Dead shows in the works, seven Star Trek shows, and so on. Why all the interest in mega-franchises, and how is Game of Thrones doing it right?

TV runs in phases. In the ’90s, everything was about sitcoms. In the 2000s, gritty antiheroes were all the rage. And since Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, everyone is trying to make splashy expensive fantasy dramas.

All of this is natural; something catches on, different studios put different twists on it, and then they move on to the next thing. What’s the next trend on the horizon? Based on what I’ve been seeing, it may be TV mega-franchises, and I’m far from convinced it’s a good thing.

First, what do I mean by a TV mega-franchise? I’ll give you a few examples. Not long ago, AMC announced that The Walking Dead was ending after a decade on the air — the show’s upcoming 11th season will be its last. That’s a pretty big deal. Love it or hate it, The Walking Dead had become a TV mainstay and it’s going to be strange not having it around.

But that’s the thing: even with the original show gone, The Walking Dead isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s expanding. This time in a few years, we’ll have Fear the Walking DeadThe Walking Dead: World Beyond, Tales of the Walking Dead, a bunch of Rick Grimes movies, and an untitled spinoff about Carol and Daryl. The end of The Walking Dead doesn’t actually mean the end of The Walking Dead. It’s growing into a mega-franchise with new content coming out practically all year round.

Then look at Star Trek over at CBS All Access (or, as it recently rebranded itself, Paramount+). Star Trek: DiscoveryStar Trek: Picard and the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks are already running, not to mention the short film series Short Treks. Coming down the pipeline we have the kids show Star Trek: Prodigy, an episodic show called Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and a series about the intelligence agency Section 31. Meet another mega-franchise.

Just one more to show you this isn’t a weird coincidence: Disney has a hit with The Mandalorian, but they’re not content to stop there. We have lots of Star Wars shows coming up, including one about Obi-Wan Kenobi, another about Cassian Andor from Rogue One, an animated Bad Batch show, and several other rumored series a couple of which I will bet my life get made. The mega-franchise isn’t just a passing idea: it’s the new standard. You even see shows like Netflix’s The Witcher, which is just one season old, planting the seeds with spinoffs like The Witcher: Blood Origin and Nightmare of the Wolf.

So why the sudden interest in building these mega-franchises rather than just giving us one show to enjoy and then maybe a spinoff down the road if it does well? A lot of this probably started with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which showed studios they could stitch together a lot of movies in a way that appealed to a mass audience (and indeed, Marvel looks like its trying to mimic the success of the MCU on TV with upcoming shows like WandaVisionThe Falcon and the Winter SoldierLokiShe-HulkMs. MarvelMoon Knight and Hawkeye). We’ve seen other movie studios mimic this formula, too, most notably Warner Bros. and its DC Extended Universe, although it hasn’t had as much success.

But it’s still trying, because the potential rewards are so high. And what are the rewards? Why, nothing less than the sum total of all your time and money, of course. Marvel made so much money with the MCU that TV studios want in, chaining you to your couch all year long so you can watch all six Walking Dead shows, all seven Star Trek shows, and however much Marvel and Star Wars stuff they can throw at you. The studios are aiming for entertainment domination so complete it won’t leave time for anything else.

The problem with this is that if everyone has this idea, no one’s idea can really succeed. People simply won’t have time to watch every Star Trek show and every Walking Dead show and every Witcher show and so on and so forth, at least not in the numbers needed to make the big investments these studios are making worth it. I see a bubble situation forming, and there’s danger of a pop.

However, the way people watch TV nowadays may be uniquely suited to this kind of mega-franchise model. Back in the old days, when networks made shows and then sold advertising for them, there was a way to easily quantify whether each show made its money back: did the income from advertisements and merch exceed the production costs? If so, great: it was a hit and could be given another season.

However, the new model is to watch shows on streaming services without commercials. Netflix and Disney+ and Paramount+ and the rest make money through subscription dollars, not ads. In this case, a studio can make a ton of shows, and so long as they attract enough new people to sign up, it doesn’t even really matter if those people actually watch them; the shows will have done their job.

As someone who watches a lot of TV, I find the prospect of so many shows a little exhausting, and kind of manipulative. But at the end of the day, if this results in a lot of content for people to choose from, it’s really not that bad of a thing. The cream should still rise to the crop, and I’m happy so many creatives are getting jobs.

Still, I worry about that bubble eventually popping and all those people losing their jobs when the world’s TV executives decide they’d rather make money another way. I guess I’m kind of boring and prefer the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race method of TV production, rather than the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method. That’s why, in the midst of all these rising mega-franchises, I appreciate what HBO is doing with House of the Dragon, its follow-up to Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones was more than popular enough to justify a spinoff or two. In fact, I’ve long thought that if the series had been with any other network, we’d already have one. But HBO doesn’t seem to have any interest in making a mega-franchise. It’s making one prequel show, and that’s not due out until 2021, two years after the original show ended. Might people lose some interest over that period? Sure, but it also means HBO is taking its time and making sure what it’s creating is good, which is better for the show’s health in the long run.

And as a fan, it gives me a chance to catch my breath and miss the series for a while, and when HBO finally starts releasing proper promo material for House of the Dragon, I’ll have one direction in which to focus my attention. Blasting me with too much content all at once kind of takes the fun out of fandom, at least if you ask me.

I’d be curious to hear what you think. Why are studios investing in so many mega-franchises? Are you excited by all the variety or exhausted by the overflow of content?