Guest Commentary: Everything Old Is New Again in Play-It-Safe World

Feb 17, 2008  •  Post A Comment

We are emerging from a Writers Guild of America strike, reality programming has been pouring onto our screens and networks are facing the dilemma of how to keep viewers from tuning out. No, it’s not 2008; I am actually describing 1988, although today’s viewers could be forgiven for thinking that everything looks a bit familiar.
Throughout the recent WGA strike, networks battled to prevent further eyeballs being lost to cell phones, portable video players and the Web. Their solution: Out with the new and in with the old! But this is a new-media landscape, no longer dependent on the “tube” for its content, and today’s viewers might not be “green” enough to buy into this recycling.
Businesses don’t like to invest in untried strategies, and networks feel the same when it comes to programming. With the strike and emergence of new-media viewing platforms upping the ante, the idea of taking a chance has become increasingly threatening.
The gamble is bigger now than ever, and if it doesn’t pay off, viewers might not be coming back. Networks are hunting for programming that they believe will deliver, and that means proven track records and formats with brand value and familiarity. To quote NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman, “brands with pre-sold awareness.”
“Mole,” “American Gladiators,” “Knight Rider” and “Password” are all examples of old shows receiving a revival. These shows have brand value and people know what to expect when they tune in. The recycling of these shows is very en vogue in the current climate. Networks win because they are able to pull in the show’s original fans and, if the show is repackaged correctly, it stands to gain big numbers from a new generation of viewers. Hype and recommendations from pre-existing fans, coupled with curiosity from those who want to tune in to see what Dad used to watch, can make these recycled shows huge hits.
But it is not just brands experiencing a renaissance; we are also seeing networks, with a commitment to the new, turning to old formats to distinguish themselves. The game show genre has undergone a huge revival, which only sped up during the strike. In addition, the Biography Channel recently announced it has bought a new talk show with William Shatner, and TLC put Stacy London’s talk show in prime time.
We also have dancing and singing shows holding on to prime-time slots with big numbers and even spawning spinoff programming. These musical shows are essentially variety shows for the 21st century, and when repackaged with the right talent they become huge pulls for young audiences who never would have dreamed of tuning in to a rerun of “The Carol Burnett Show.”
What all this means is a boon to reality programming, which in the past was called variety or game and was considered healthy family viewing. More people of more ages are watching more unscripted shows than ever before, and whereas once upon a time we tuned in to Ed McMahon’s “Star Search” as a family, now it’s “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” The networks have successfully enticed old fans by using established brands and used marketing buzz to convince new viewers that this is fresh fare.
But are they also trying to convince themselves?
Before we can call this a revitalization for certain, recycled formats need to demonstrate their staying power. Sure they may do well now against reruns, but will they sustain such high numbers when new scripted programming comes back on air?
We also should ask whether this programming needs to sustain high numbers when alternatives return. Is this recycling a genuine attempt at invigorating old formats, or just a get-out-of-jail-free card that bought the networks more time they knew the striking writers wouldn’t have to continue to go without work?
One thing is for certain, and that is unscripted programming is everywhere. Unscripted content is now at its most dominant, and regardless of network recycling habits, new concepts are created faster than ever before. When we talk of an invigoration of unscripted programming taking place on television, we are looking in the wrong place. Sure, old formats are having a renaissance, with revamps on traditional broadcast, but the real revolution is taking place among the millions of new content creators experimenting with new formats on new platforms.
What networks must ask is whether audiences will accept the familiar in our brave new multiplatform world. The difference between old and new is that now viewers can choose whether or not to support recycling, and as the success of Al Gore’s Current TV demonstrates, you can be green without recycling.


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