As the major networks go all in on rebooting familiar television shows – even using the same stars, they risk becoming irrelevant
Over the last few weeks, you’d think network television executives were taking cues from those who run Chicago radio: over the last few years, we were treated to “reboots” of Jonathon Brandmeier, Mancow, Steve Dahl, Bob Sirott (and Marianne Murciano), as the medium locally continues to recapture the glory years of the 1980s and 1990s. Yours truly once said “Chicago radio has become a nursing home for broken-down talent who refuse to leave the stage.”
Now broadcast network television is taking the same approach with these “reboots” of shows from the 1970s through the 1990s – whether they were popular or not. In the last few days alone, rehashes of programs such as Murphy Brown, Magnum P.I., The Greatest American Hero, Charmed, Get Christie Love, and Cagney & Lacey were announced. This is in addition to other recently announced reboots such as American Idol, Roseanne, and existing ones such as Will & Grace and The X-Files, the latter one not being well-received.
And the rumor mill churns with other names resurfacing: Sister Sister, Martin, Friends, Living Single, and others.
Even the XFL is making a comeback.
So what’s with the reboots?
For one, these programs are recognizable names – even the ones who long faded from the limelight. In an era where people have so many viewing options, familiarity sells. It worked for Will & Grace, who got renewed for a second season. It worked for Fuller House and One Day At A Time – the latter also a critical success and both are hits for Netflix.
Second, with the off-network syndication market collapsing, the networks (and the studios) no longer feel the pressure to have a show needing to get to one hundred episodes to cash in on riches. As viewers are now reject any program with an (R) beside its name, television programming has become more disposable like a diaper or a razor. The days of creating the next timeless classic – think Honeymooners, Cheers, M*A*S*H, or The Simpsons unfortunately may be long gone. Local stations (such as Tribune’s WGN and Fox-owned WFLD) have all but bailed out of the off-net sitcom business as they replaced such fare in key early fringe and prime access periods with newscasts or first-run strips.
And thus, there’s the reason why Will & Grace did, and Roseanne and Murphy Brown plan to tackle topical issues such as the current political atmosphere. As I wrote earlier, Murphy Brown didn’t have much success in off-network, because of its topicality and much of the material felt dated.
Revivals of programs have had a mixed track record in the past. While former canceled network shows such as Charles in Charge, It’s A Living, and Mama’s Family had successful revivals in first-run syndication, the syndicated reboot of WKRP lasted just two years (1991-93), but you can blame financial troubles at then-MTM parent International Family Entertainment. Reboots of other former network series such as We Got It Made, Flipper, and Knight Rider were outright flops, as was a reboot of American Gladiators in 2008. On the other side of the coin, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a monster hit, without the original cast of the previous series.
But this reboot frenzy is out of control – it sends a message to viewers and advertisers the industry is out of ideas. Instead of creating original and fresh programming, they decided to trot out the retreads – a common complaint yours truly has made regarding Chicago radio in recent years. Personally, I have no interest in the return of Roseanne and Murphy Brown, since I’ve never watched them regularly in the first place as I was 16 when they premiered and like most people my age at the time, didn’t care for political or working-class humor. As television writer Ken Levine noted, Murphy skewed older compared to other sitcoms from the era, and the new Murphy may not attract younger viewers (the 18-49 crowd.) Murphy’s peak came at a time when CBS was known as a network who skewed “old to dead”.
This reboot nonsense also sends a message the broadcast networks are no longer the place for innovative programming – something basic cable and streaming services have long offered, hampering efforts to attract those young viewers. The one thing going for the broadcast networks is reach – available in every home due to its over-the-air status, it’s a strong selling point to advertisers, but even they’ve found cable (especially local cable avails) and streaming (YouTube, Hulu) better targets for their products.
So in retrospect – pun intended, it is ridiculous to see the broadcast networks go all in regarding the retro craze. Like other trends, this too will come and go.
But in an era where anything can happen, the worlds of network television and Chicago radio could collide and a give us reboot of Brandmeier’s 1991 late-night series Johnny B. On The Loose. If this happens, you know we’ve reached the ultimate point of absurdity in the media business.