Don’t look now, but the major TV networks are getting ready to party like it’s 1989.
The development process for next season is still young, but the initial stages have produced a notable wave of reboots and revivals of familiar properties. CBS, for example, has ordered an update of “Murphy Brown,” a program that premiered the same year as “Roseanne,” in 1988, which will make its return in March on ABC.
Other pilots plucked from the revival bin – some without “Murphy’s” assurance of ever seeing the light of day, it’s worth noting – include new versions of “The Greatest American Hero” and “Cagney & Lacey” (which premiered in 1981), “Magnum P.I.” (1980), “Party of Five” (1994) and “Charmed” (1998).
Why the frequent trips into the way-back machine, which has been a growing and consistent component of the TV landscape, including, among others, Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” (which just began its second season), “Full House” and “Gilmore Girls” revivals?
While critics grouse about the lack of creativity such projects exhibit, developing them represents a content-driven solution to a marketing problem, one that recognizes changes in both the TV and journalistic ecosystems.
In an age of peak TV, networks are looking for any advantage they can find to help break through the clutter. Established titles offer a short-hand way of doing that, often even more so than big-name talent or arresting concepts.
Despite sniping on Twitter, journalists are also part of this process. Lacking the band-width to write about every new show, when even venerable newspapers have joined in the business of chasing web traffic, they’re far more apt to devote time to projects that enjoy built-in name recognition.
Not so long ago, critics would review every new network series. Today, with so much content crying out for attention, more forgettable-sounding programs can easily fall through the cracks.
Take “A.P. Bio,” a moderately amusing but mostly forgettable new NBC comedy premiering this week. Although the show stars “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” alum Glenn Howerton, it’s not a given most outlets will herald its arrival, which will hardly be the case when “Roseanne” or “Murphy Brown” hits the air.
Reboots provide no assurance of success, obviously, but they have clearly enjoyed enough of it to justify gambling on them. CBS, with its older audience profile, has seen “Hawaii Five-O” and “MacGyver” become fixtures on its Friday lineup, even if the CW’s “Dynasty” isn’t exactly raking in the big bucks, and the latest run of Fox’s “The X-Files” has been disappointing.
It’s worth noting, too, that several of these prototypes largely just appropriate the title – as a means of generating interest and sampling – sometimes significantly changing the characters, including their race, gender or (in the case of “Greatest American Hero”) both.
It’s easy to mock networks for their apparent lack of creativity, in the same way critics have groaned about old TV series being transformed into movies, including artifacts like “Mission: Impossible,” “21 Jump Street,” “The A-Team” and (in one of last summer’s bigger flops) “Baywatch.”
Still, these projects are pandering to the media as much as the audience, identifying their shared weakness for titles that don’t have to be sold from scratch.
So while it’s easy to mock programmers for playing the equivalent of the same old song, the criticisms would have more weight if so many of us, one way or another, weren’t dancing to some version of that tune.