The networks touted their upcoming season at the Upfronts a few weeks ago. Here are some of the new shows:
Roseanne. Will & Grace. Dynasty. S.W.A.T. Trading Spaces.
Either I’ve been transported 25 years into the past, or there’s a massive outbreak of nostalgia sweeping the nation.
No, it’s just old shows coming back. New and improved, they promise. I can hear the yawns already.
I’m not the first person to notice the trend. Everyone keeps trying to bring back the past. And it almost never works.
The point here is not to knock networks or services for offering recycled titles, tempting as it may be. Sometimes the new versions are pretty good – see Gilmore Girls (pictured) or Friday Night Lights. But it’s time to face the facts about why this practice has turned from occasional curiosity to a full-fledged strategy that’s ultimately doomed to failure.
The answer in one word: Marketing. It’s much easier to sell something that’s already familiar to the audience. Programmers and marketers don’t have to break through the chaotic clutter of our current media marketplace with a brand-new title. It’s understandable. A familiar title gives them a head start in their advertising and PR.
So, why do most of these reboots fail? The reasons are worth noting:
Success then does not equal success now. Decision-makers sensibly look at what worked in the past to guide current actions. So far, so good. But they fail to factor in the reasons why those shows were successful – perhaps it was the era, cast, competition, time period, or just the sheer novelty. Twin Peaks was a breakthrough in 1990. Now – not so much. Things change.
Pre-sold titles are not always really sold. Notice how no one is reviving My Fair Brady or The Swan. They failed, and the titles won’t draw a large audience. But Dynasty? Yes, it was popular. In the 1980s. And didn’t anyone notice that the Dallas reboot didn’t last long? No matter how good the TV version of The Exorcist was, it was bound to suffer from the comparison with the movie – another type of “pre-sold” title that isn’t all that sold to the TV or video audience.
Movies do it, but TV is a different animal. By definition, it takes a big push to leave your home to go to a theater and pay a bloated ticket price. That push is marketing. And if a movie fails in its first week or two, the owners of the local multiplex will quickly boot it and move Spider Man XV or Fast and Furious 9 into the empty screen. Movies are usually way more expensive than TV shows, and need to open strong to make their money back, and thus spend a fortune on marketing. Television – in all forms of its distribution – is as close as your home, tablet or phone. The networks or services make their money from selling ads or subscriptions. Yes, the TV business is increasingly dependent on marketing, but it can make a profit in other ways than selling tickets. There are many examples of shows that capture public imagination with little or no movie-style marketing (perhaps the subject of a future column!). And you can watch them without leaving home.
Relying on old titles reveals a lack of imagination. Let’s face it. The cynicism that pervades the business often reveals itself in these kinds of decisions. Even so, doesn’t anyone look at what shows are leading the ratings? They’re often well-produced, truly original programs that develop a following and keep people tuning in with a consistent promise or format. This Is Us was the biggest hit drama of the past season. The Walking Dead delivers cable’s highest ratings. Among factual phenomena, Deadliest Catch still draws a crowd and Househunters has a rabid following. They succeed the old-fashioned way – they earn it.
Everyone likes an easy road to riches. But it rarely happens. The lesson for both producers and distributors: Recycling is good for the environment but not a creative strategy. A familiar title – even with great marketing – can never make people watch a bad show.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.
Michael not only welcomes your feedback, but also relishes further discussion. So, don’t be shy. Send your comments to MichaelC@MandCMedia.com