Looking to its future, television revisits past
The television industry is facing an uncertain, uncharted future. But next season it's placing a big bet on the past.
MacGyver, the crafty secret agent, is returning to CBS three decades after his 1985 debut. "Tales From the Crypt," an HBO series that first aired in 1989, will be resurrected on TNT. "MTV Unplugged," whose Eric Clapton heyday was in the 1990s, is back — and so are "24," "Prison Break" and "Gilmore Girls."
"We now live in a world where TV shows never die," said David Nevins, chief executive of Showtime. He has his own revival on the way: Nevins helped persuade David Lynch to create a new chapter of "Twin Peaks," the cult series that went off the air a quarter-century ago.
Network nostalgia for a happier, Netflix-free age is not the only factor at play. With about 400 scripted shows airing last year alone, built-in name recognition can offer a crucial edge with audiences overwhelmed by new choices. And streaming services have revealed new interest in older titles thought to be past their profitable prime.
"We are not saying we are out of the original idea business," said David Madden, president of entertainment at Fox. "Having said that, there are a lot of shows out there, a lot of material competing for people's attention. And where you have a title that people recognize, value and appreciate, that's something we want to take advantage of."
Name-brand programs can excite existing fan bases, reduce marketing costs and appeal to an increasingly important international market.
But there are no guarantees. Fox's revival of "The X-Files" was among this season's best-rated new shows, but the network canceled "Minority Report," based on the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie, after dismal ratings. ABC is axing its revival of "The Muppets," and on Monday, CBS said it was canceling the low-rated "Rush Hour."
"It is irresistible in a world that has 60 or 80 makers of original programming to have something that has pre-existing awareness," said Nevins of Showtime. "Still, at the end of the day, it's going to rise and fall based on its quality."
And not all revivals are created equal. Nevins said he pursued a new "Twin Peaks" only because Lynch agreed to participate. ("We've persuaded the original creators to complete their mission," he said.) David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson signed on for "The X-Files," but Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker were missing from "Rush Hour."
Other titles will be re-imagined, even if the name initially helped open doors. Sarah Aubrey, who oversees programming at TNT, described the excitement when M. Night Shyamalan approached the network about revamping "Tales From the Crypt," the kitschy HBO horror series. But the plan is for a new twist on the cackling Cryptkeeper character, and not a shot-by-shot remake.
MTV has a similar strategy for "Unplugged," which returns as the channel pivots back to its music video roots. The new "Unplugged" is meant to appeal to Generation Xers and millennials alike.
In part, the move toward all these reboots is a product of — and hedge against — the rise of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video, where cord-cutting viewers are rediscovering shows whose syndication days on cable and broadcast networks are long over.
And audiences like the classics. "Friends" has been a surprise hit on Netflix, which also brought the world "Fuller House," a sequel to "Full House." Hulu paid nearly $1 million an episode to stream "Seinfeld." A recent survey by Comcast Xfinity found that "The Sopranos," a show that had its premiere in 1999, and "The Wire," which debuted in 2002, were among the most popular shows on its on-demand service, which reaches millions of households.
For networks that own their old shows, the financial allure of a remake is even greater. "It refreshes and regenerates the library," said Peter Rice, chairman of Fox Networks Group, noting that old episodes become newly valuable domestically and overseas.
"Hawaii Five-0," the 1960s procedural that CBS revived in 2010, is considered a case study of that model. The show's revival prompted a windfall syndication deal with TNT, with CBS securing more than $2 million per episode. Peter Lenkov, who oversees the new "Hawaii Five-0," was recently tapped by CBS to run its new version of "MacGyver," which stars Lucas Till. And, yes, CBS renewed "Hawaii Five-0" for a seventh season.
A social anthropologist might wonder if television's nostalgia craze can be attributed to viewers who are seeking out the familiar in a disruptive, uneasy age (See Trump, Donald). But when that question was posed to Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for media and society at the University of Southern California, he laughed.
"I would not discount the commercial motivations," Kaplan, a screenwriter and former studio executive, said dryly.
"MacGyver is a name that's in the culture," he said. "If you see that, you know what you're getting, as opposed to some name that means nothing." That's why, he added, viewers often encounter "endless sequels to things that seem to have come out only 20 minutes ago."
The nostalgia, he noted, may be on the studios' end, rather than viewers'. "There's nothing as helpful to a programmer as a title or a show that has brand equity already built into it," he said.