You have a time portal and you’re curious about how different television was decades ago. So, you step through the portal and come out somewhere in the 1960s. You’re shocked!
There are just three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), and they’re not even on the air 24 hours a day! You can only watch a specific show once each week on a specific day at a specific time. The local affiliates fill the time between the network programming blocks with syndicated game shows, local gabfests, old movies, and old TV reruns.
If the time portal landed you in a major TV market, there might be an independent station, maybe a couple, unaffiliated with a network, and they fill their days with even more old movies and old TV shows, more local talk, and sports.
Compared to what you left behind in 2022, it’s a comparative content desert. You’re grateful as hell to step back through the portal and looking forward to streaming Disney’s new Obi-Wan Kenobi series. In a bit of saintly largesse, you take one of the locals with you to show him/her just how far TV has progressed over the intervening half-century.
You plop him/her down in front of your big screen TV (which does suitably impress him/her), hand your visitor the remote, and, as luck would have it, your guest lands on, oh, say Cozi TV. Or maybe Antenna TV. Or Me TV. At which point he/she shakes his/her head over what’s on the screen – an episode of Columbo, or My Favorite Martian, or Wanted: Dead or Alive – and turns to you and says, “I thought this was what we left behind!”
Herewith the paradox of today’s multiple platform programming environments with streaming services and a bazillion cable channels: that at the same time audiences are treated to more new programming on any given day than ever before in the history of the medium (and a fair bit of it rated among the best to ever hit the no-longer-so-small screen), they are also being offered more old TV programming than ever before in the, etc., and with Me TV’s recent addition of a second channel – Me TV+ — channels whose entire 24-hour line-up – or at least most of it — is nothing but TV oldies, some of them more than a half-century old, seem to be flourishing.
So…why? At a time in TV history when so much adventurous, brave, edgy, and truly creative programming flickers to life on TV screens each day, what is providing this fertile ground for so many channels to find their market in yesteryear?
Studying trends in TV is like studying the tides; changes never come down to one thing. You study tidal movements and you’re looking at the moon’s gravitational pull, winds, rotation of the planet, and how they all interplay.
This is that same kind of thing
Recycling old TV shows isn’t new. It’s as old as… Well, it’s as old as whenever content producers had produced enough cancelled TV shows to give them something to sell. Except for the earliest years of the medium – say the late 1940s into the late 1950s – TV schedulers have always had more time to fill than they have had content. Beginning in the late 1950s, syndication – where licenses for old shows were sold to individual TV stations – helped stations fill those hours.
For Boomers like myself, this made for an oddly bifurcated kind of past-and-present TV pop culture environment. If one of us was, you know, home sick from school (“No, really, Mom – cough-cough – I don’t feel well, no, it’s for real this time, don’t you hear me coughing? Cough-cough!”), or on the weekends, we were treated to shows that had come and gone before we were old enough to have had our own contemporary primetime faves. So, at the same time we were watching Combat! or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or The Wild, Wild West or Lost in Space in primetime, during those – cough-cough – sick days, we spent the daytime hours with The Life of Riley, My Little Margie, The Gale Storm Show, December Bride and its spinoff (yes, they had them in those olden times) Pete and Gladys, The Ann Sothern Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Real McCoys, Bat Masterson, My Friend Flicka and a host of others.
It’s one of the reasons those early seasons of Saturday Night Live (and pre-SNL SNL-like movie parody vehicles like The Groove Tube  and Tunnel Vision ) took so many shots at long-gone TV shows and TV iconography; because their Boomer audience had grown up with them thanks to syndication. When Dan Ackroyd did his Eliot Ness spoofs on SNL, we laughed because we got the joke from having watched The Untouchables not during its 1958-63 network run, but because we’d been watching it in syndicated reruns for years.
Along comes cable television in the 1970s, touted as an alternative to broadcast TV. Well, only partly. By the end of the 1980s, more people were watching cable networks than were watching the Big Three broadcast networks, but cable programmers were faced with the persistent problem of having to fill airtime on an expanding number of 24/7channels. Tune in to this “broadcast alternative” on a weekday afternoon, land on, oh, let’s pick on A&E, and you were more likely to find yourself watching a rerun of The Fugitive (which had gone off the air in 1967) than something new and original to the network.
While a lot of cable networks have now grown into impressive producers of original content, well, how much stuff can they produce? Scripted originals are expensive, and successful originals are hardly common. What we used to call “library product” when I was in the trade still makes up a significant amount of programming, aided and abetted by “repurposing” – networks rerunning current net fare on basic cable channels they own.
I flicked around my cable spectrum today – a Thursday afternoon – as I was working on this piece and found IFC plowing through a block of 3rd Rock from the Sun which was going to be followed by a block of Scrubs; TBS was running a Friends block; Lifetime had a train of Rizzoli & Isles eps; USA was working through a bunch of Chicago Fire installments; the Paramount Channel was soon going to be running their afternoon block of Mom followed by their Two and a Half Men block; Pop TV had their early daytime streak of E.R. episodes which would hand off in mid-afternoon to a bunch of hours of House; Law & Order and Law & Order SVU seem to be everywhere… Well, you see how it is. I could go on…and on…and on. Today, I found even news channel NewsNation filling a couple of daytime hours with Blue Bloods.
Logo, WE, the various Hallmark channels, Comedy Central et al… There’s hardly a channel that airs scripted programming that doesn’t do it. In fact, if a cable channel isn’t in the reality TV or documentary business, they’re dipping into the libraries to fill substantial hunks of airtime
Premium channels aren’t immune. Screenpix’ “Westerns” channel has an early evening block of The Wild, Wild West episodes, while Starz Encore’s “Westerns” channel has a whole line-up of “classic” (in TV jargon, meaning anything that isn’t new) TV series from mid-afternoon into early evening i.e. The Deputy, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Wagon Train, Laramie, Death Valley Days, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Rifleman, The Virginian.
Without all this library product, quite a few cable channels would either be stuck with a lot of dead air or have to rerun their new shows even more nauseatingly frequently than they already do.
Says media critic and author of The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, Stephen Whitty:
(There are) too many outlets and not enough content. These streamers need to program 24/7 but many shows are expensive, or simply not available so — not unlike the old days of local broadcast TV stations – they’re scooping up whatever they can find. Two straight hours of Room 222? A Perry Mason marathon? Great! As Netflix has proven, creating original programming is extremely expensive, and hardly foolproof. So why risk millions on something new when you can just re-run Love, American Style? And with everyone competing for the big titles (Seinfeld, Friends) some streamers are digging deep, resurrecting shows that barely lasted a season. The Sixth Sense? Sure!
The tactics here – and the tactical value of what old stuff some channels buy and what they won’t – are interesting.
Take those two “Westerns” channels, for instance. Prehistoric TV Westerns work for them because the audience for Westerns tends to skew old, so these shows should appeal to the same audience all those cowboy movies draw. But around the rest of the cable dial…
For the most part, the major upscale cable services focus mainly on post-2000 series and/or those series from before that time that have such name value, that their programming value is equal to, if not better, than the original product. That explains the big-dollar bidding wars for some decades-old series by streaming services.
In 2019, Yahoo Finance reported Netflix was spending approximately $15 billion of its $20 billion gross income on programming but look where some of that money was going. The service spent $100 million for Friends which had gone off the air in 2004, then followed that up by dropping another $500 million for Seinfeld which aired its last episode in 1998. It’s also worth noting that neither series had ever been off the air, being in constant syndication ever since cancellation. Think of it: over a half-billion bucks for a twenty-year-old series people had never stopped watching.
When WarnerMedia was planning its HBO Max streaming platform, the company laid out its own $500 million wad to land a five-year agreement for The Big Bang Theory the very same year – 2019 — the series was airing its last episode.
Does that make any sense? Any sense at all?
The magic word here is “clutter.” When I was still in the trade, as cable channels proliferated, we talked about “cutting through the clutter” – how, out of the expanding forest of program channels you could still grab eyeballs for a particular service. The problem of clutter has never provided a higher hurdle than today.
A recent IndieWire report by Ryan Lattanzio from Cannes focusing on Guillermo del Toro outlined the issue nicely:
Del Toro…pointed to the superabundance of films and TV shows available to audiences, and…the struggle to take it all in amid algorithms pushing us in one direction or another….
“Everybody’s working,” (Del Toro says). “Everybody’s doing a TV series, a commercial, a video, a feature. We produce more than ever, and we can watch less than ever. Everybody in this room has yet to catch up with twenty movies, ten TV series, fifty commercials, we are all behind. In a sense, we have a train that is moving faster, and we are all running outside the train trying to jump on board at some point…”
So naturally, like guests at a crowded party full of strangers, there are viewers who are happy to see a familiar face in the crowd. In a 2019 Wall Street Journal story on the growing phenomenon of “the rewatch,” reporter John Jurgensen talked to one 21-year-old Netflix subscriber and The Office rewatcher who, at the time, was beginning her eleventh cycle of rewatching the entire series: “I have connected with those characters. It’s tedious to try doing that again (with a new series). Why would I waste my time when I could watch a show that I know that I love?” Jurgenson also cited a thirty-five-year-old subscriber to several streaming services who tried keeping up with streaming originals but “…a growing numbness to new options has only strengthened his embrace of standbys like Parks and Recreation.”
Point is, in a media terrain submerged in a never-ending flood of new content, there are those subscribers who would rather spend their time with something they already like than with an unknown maybe-it’s-good-but-maybe-it’s-not quantity.
That doesn’t explain this expanding number of basic cable channels that not only run nothing but oldies, but titles that hardly have the kind of name recognition of a Seinfeld…or, for that matter, a Star Trek or The Honeymooners or The Twilight Zone. I mean, seriously; how many of you – and be honest – ever heard of Hawaiian Eye?
One of the “tidal” factors that underpin this whole discussion has to do with demographics. Different sources set different year breaks and tallies for generational cohorts, but this layout from the Kasasa financial technology company can still provide a good idea of the demo cohort breakdown. In reverse order:
Span | Population
Gen Alpha | 2012 – 2025+ | 48 million
Gen Z | 1997 – 2012 | 68 million
Gen Y | 1981 – 1994 | 72.1 million
Gen X | 1965 – 1980 | 65.2 million
Baby Boomers | 1946 – 1964 | 71.6 million
The key to those oldies channels is that whopping big Baby Boomers number. What you see on those channels are the programs – then new and syndicated – they grew up with.
Look, here’s what some of the channels are running in typical weekday primetime slots:
8:00 The Andy Griffith Show
8:30 The Andy Griffith Show
9:00 Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
9:30 Green Acres
10:00 Hogan’s Heroes
10:30 Hogan’s Heroes
8:00 Hawaii Five-O
9:00 77 Sunset Strip
10:00 Hawaiian Eye
H&I (Heroes & Icons – owned by Weigel Broadcasting which also owns Me and Me+)
8:00 Star Trek
9:00 Star Trek: The Next Generation
10:00 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
(I have to jump in here because my H&I favorite is their make-war-not-love Saturday night block which features, back-to-back, Tour of Duty, Combat!, two episodes of The Rat Patrol, 12 O’Clock High, and then double eps of The Rat Patrol again.)
8:00 The Jeffersons
8:30 The Jeffersons
9:00 The Jeffersons
9:30 The Jeffersons
10:00 The Johnny Carson Show
8:00 Through the Decades (the channel’s only original program, a historical retrospective)
9:00 The Dick Cavett Show
10:00 The Dick Van Dyke Show
10:30 The Dick Van Dyke Show
8:00 The Ultimate Cowboy Showdown (Insp does very little original programming but all of its shows are Western-themed)
8:00 Everybody Loves Raymond
8:30 Everybody Loves Raymond
9:00 Everybody Loves Raymond
9:30 Everybody Loves Raymond
10:00 Everybody Loves Raymond
10:30 Everybody Loves Raymond
8:00 Major Crimes
9:00 Major Crimes
10:00 Rizzoli & Isles
And for good measure, let’s throw in Buzzr which reruns (even I have problems wrapping my head around this one) old game shows. That’s right; you can watch celebs (if you’re under 50) you’ve probably never heard of helping civilians in eye-gouging ’70s wardrobes win some money while dropping (for the time) witty wicked double entendres which got supposedly shocked oooooh’s from the studio audience.
The fuel for this is that whale-sized Boomer audience. AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan explains the logistics and money dynamics that make it work:
In streaming driven by algorithms, TV shows are recommended with lots of data so you can increasingly get individual series you truly like.
So a reasonable and economical approach to linear broadcast is easy-to-digest and cheap-to-buy programs that do OK if one tunes in randomly (no appointment TV).
They can also be distributed as “FAST” (free ad-supported TV channels) on the Internet.
Think of the Boomers: the youngest of them are in their mid-1950s. They didn’t grow up immersed in a multi-platform interactive media environment. For many of them, the only interactivity involved in their TV watching during their formative years was to get up (yeah, you had to get up) to turn the channel dial. Why take on the extra expense of streaming services as well as having to learn how to navigate them when you can just drop in on Antenna TV or Me TV+ and find something that’s both familiar and, well, I guess the word is…comfortable.
And that may be another factor. I’m speculating here, but I suspect a lot of those older viewers may not be enamored of a TV universe populated by what can seem an overwhelming amount of fantasy, sci fi, horror, grim and sometimes grotesque crime shows, youthful angst, et al.
Stephen Whitty, again:
(One) reason is, I think, comfort. I know that during the worst days of the Trump regime, I found real solace at the end of the day by watching an old The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I still often wind down with a Jerry Orbach-era Law & Order. I love seeing shows featuring real characters and relatable situations (clearly, I am not a Marvel fan). But I also love the self-contained nature of these old shows. I enjoy being able to just dip in, randomly, and watch a half-hour sitcom or hour-long drama that doesn’t require that I’ve seen the last two episodes, or which makes me watch the next three to find out what happens (you notice that the series having the greatest success [in reruns] aren’t the long-form, continuing dramas like L.A. Law or E.R.) You’re in, you’re out, and you’re satisfied.
And what other business delivers that these days?
And maybe that’s the heart of it. Here are these tens of millions of TV watchers out there, all in the same AARP age range, all maybe a little intimidated by the constantly changing technology of TV, maybe overwhelmed by the sheer tonnage of stuff coming at them, maybe a bit alienated by the dark, abrasive, and sometimes fantastic nature of so much of it, and maybe even looking for a little bit of solace as they live through one of the most socially and economically turbulent eras in a couple of generations.
Emmy-winning writer/producer/director Bill Persky, who worked on some of the best shows of that long ago era, says:
I think the oldies still work because they are safe and a visit to a better time. There were more obviously good and bad people, no shading that made you think…and, just in passing, they were good.
Will this dynamic change? Oh, it’s an obvious inevitability, as sure as time only moves forward because as much as I hate being reminded of my own mortality, the Boomers will die out. The interesting question is, can the same combination of generational comfort food/nostalgia/yearning for familiarity work on subsequent generations?
Well, there’s another wrinkle there, particularly as you get into the Yers and especially the Zers and Alphas.
Remember my description at the top of what TV was like when the Boomers were growing up? With so few media platforms, pop culture was more comprehensive, more cohesive; it was generationally shared. But the media universe now, with its multiplicity of platforms and its torrent of material is so fractured and fragmented, could you even put together a viable 24-hour line-up that would work for large numbers of Gen Zers? What shows, what icons from this era would resonate with most of these viewers twenty-thirty years from now rather than only with some generational niche?
Maybe that’s something else the Boomers miss: that sitting in our separate homes in front of our own TVs, we still felt connected because we all watched, more or less, the same thing. When they watch the oldies, even the crappy ones, maybe that’s what they remember.
What will you remember?