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What makes a TV show a lasting hit?

By Barbara Keenlyside
CNN

NBC's
NBC's "Friends" will leave the primetime lineup in May after 10 years, but will live on in syndication.

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(CNN) -- Americans curl up on couches and Barcaloungers to watch TV on Sunday. The big stopwatch starts its soft, urgent tick-tick-tick-tick.

It stops. Exactly like clockwork comes: "I'm Mike Wallace." The blunt reporter who once made his interviewees squirm now makes viewers settle back.

Incredibly, the "60 Minutes" stopwatch has kept ticking for 35 years. This is the Methuselah of TV shows, but others like "Friends", "Saturday Night Live," "The Late Show," "Frasier" and "The Simpsons" have lived long lives. Still others, like "Golden Girls," "All in the Family" and "Cheers" have lived long lives, died and gone to syndication heaven.

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Culture watchers say a constellation of factors make a TV program last: great writers, producers and actors; a good concept; room to grow with a strong ensemble cast offering multiple story lines; a desirable time slot; audience comfort; loyal network support; and the public's fickle taste -- the wild card.

Shows as seemingly different as "The Simpsons" and "60 Minutes" share some of those traits -- a reliable cast of characters, good writing, the comfort factor and concepts that allow fresh material. Also, they each stay contemporary by providing comment on current events.

"60 Minutes" has been de-fanged by age. It doesn't surprise anymore, but its celebrity cast of correspondents and the comfort it offers of always being there -- same time, same station -- comes as a shelter in today's TV blitzkrieg.

"It's inspired extreme loyalty," says Bradley Freeman, a professor at Marist College who specializes in pop culture. "It's Americana; it's part of our culture."

"In popular culture, familiarity or cuddliness is important," says Gary R. Edgerton, chairman of the communication and theatre arts department at Old Dominion University.

Edgerton says TV shows are either star-driven or concept-driven, or morph one into the other.

"When 'Friends' began 10 years ago ... the actors and actresses on that show were relatively unknown," Edgerton says. "Now it's star-driven. The concept has run its course. ... People go to them 'cause it's like tuning in to an old friend."

Fox's
Fox's "The Simpsons," broadcast since 1989, originally aired as shorts on "The Tracy Ullman Show."

A hit almost always takes an established genre -- drama, sitcom, quiz show, ensemble comedy, late-night talk show, detective show, soap opera -- and adds a twist.

Edgerton says the formula for success mixes "comfort, convention and invention.

"Don't deviate from formula too far; you don't want to alienate the audience," he says. "But you use an old concept with a new spin."

Experts say that sometimes, a hot show expresses something percolating at the surface of the culture's subconscious -- and hits the air at the golden moment the mainstream is poised to accept an element of the encroaching fringe.

The seminal '70s show "All in the Family," for example, took the well-worn family sitcom genre and placed it right in the combative generation gap between parents and the counterculture -- when it really was counter.

Wildly successful "M*A*S*H" also upped the ante on a familiar theme, according to Kevin Howley, who teaches communications studies at DePauw University.

"'M*A*S*H' has its roots in 'F-Troop' ... and 'Hogan's Heroes' and 'Sergeant Bilko' with Phil Silvers," Howley says. "It took the generic conventions of cutups in the service" and added black humor and a bleak view of war.

The best example of a genre-bender today is the nutty cult hit "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

"'Queer Eye' is not much different from a lot of reality programming -- the premise of the first date, marriage, rehabilitating somebody and then the tips for audience -- the spin is mainstreaming gay characters," Edgerton says. Whether it will last is up in the air, experts say.

Before cable, VCRs and quick-trigger remotes, networks gave shows time to develop, Freeman says.

"The Cosby Show," on the air from 1984-1992, served as a "tent pole" on Thursday nights.

Now, shows usually need to burst right out of the gate.

"It used to be a series of shows like 'St. Elsewhere,' 'L.A. Law' and 'Twin Peaks'" had the time to develop an audience. "Networks said ... we can grow it," Freeman says. "That philosophy went out in the early '90s, where it's got to hit big and quick."

A hit or miss also can be all in the timing.

"Scheduling is an important factor," Edgerton says. "Take a show like ['The Cosby Show'] -- a smash hit propelled by the sheer talent and persona of Bill Cosby.

"It became a tent pole that holds up the whole evening. ... The importance of a hit show is not just the show, it's that it brings viewers to the shows before and after," Edgerton says.

Terrific ensemble acting and story lines that weave in and out give writers lots of hooks to hold viewers' interest and build upon.

"An ensemble cast allows you to do a couple different things: one is multiple story lines ... and a couple of story lines that can run across different seasons," Howley says.

Still, for that wild-card reason, some shows make it and some very good shows don't.

For those who fell in love with a show only to have it yanked, the new cable channel TRIO offers its "Brilliant but Cancelled" series every night in prime time. Interested viewers can tune in to its Web site. If it's still there.


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