27 December 2009

Hey networks doing remakes of classic TV shows, I have an awesome idea. It's called "reruns".

The New York Times just published this new article by its TV writer Bill Carter, "Why Studios Keep Cranking Out TV Remakes, Despite the Flops". It provides a context in the major US broadcast networks remaking classic TV series. In fall 2010, three remakes of old TV shows will premiere in primetime: Charlie's Angels (ABC), Hawaii Five-O (CBS), and (NBC). Interestingly, the original versions of all these shows were on the same networks: Charlie's AngelsThe Rockford Files ran from 1976-1981, Hawaii Five-O from 1968-1980, and The Rockford Files 1974-1980.

This season, the CW network has two remakes of 1990s teen dramas Beverly Hills, 90210 (the remake is simply 90210) and Melrose Place. In this case, the original versions of these shows were on Fox; the CW was established in 2006 after the UPN and WB networks (both of which were established in the mid-1990s) merged. Beverly Hills, 90210 ran on Fox from 1990-2000, and Melrose Place ran on the same network from 1992-1999. Regarding the CW's remakes, Carter writes: "No one would claim either approaches the success of their predecessors, or even passable hit status."

In his article, Carter explains that many remakes of classic shows have flopped recently.
- The Fugitive (ABC, 1963-1967; remade for CBS, 2000). Compared with the now-successful, still-running CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the remake of The Fugitive had a lot of buzz right before it premiered. It was canceled after one season.
- The Bionic Woman (ABC, 1976-1977, moved to NBC, 1977-1978; remade for NBC as Bionic Woman, 2007). Like The Fugitive, the Bionic Woman remake attracted a lot of pre-premiere attention. But the show lasted only 9 episodes.
- Dragnet (radio, 1949-1957; NBC, 1951-1959; remade for ABC, 1967-1970; remade for syndication as The New Dragnet, 1989-1991; remade for ABC as L.A. Dragnet, 2003). A rather interesting production history exists behind the franchise: Both the '50s and '60s versions had Jack Webb cast as main character Joe Friday and had "the same ominous theme music and intro about names being changed to protect the innocent". Dick Wolf, creator of the long-running Law & Order drama franchise, created L.A. Dragnet. Although it cast Ed O'Neill (who played Al Bundy in Married...With Children) and Eva Longoria (who was on the cast of The Young and the Restless), Wolf's L.A. Dragnet flopped after a few episodes.
- Knight Rider (NBC, 1982-1986; remade for NBC, 2008). NBC premiered a TV movie of Knight Rider in February 2008 shortly after the writers' strike ended. The remade TV series followed the next fall, but that flopped too.

Carter writes also:

It is easy to understand why. “It’s a good idea to try,” said Warren Littlefield, who was the top programmer at NBC and is now an independent producer. “Movies have proved you can do well with a presold concept.”

That is another way of saying it is only natural to turn to familiar titles because they attract attention. The question is whether the series that result will attract viewers.

The track record does more than suggest not: it screams not. In the history of network television, no remake of a previous hit series has ever become a hit itself on network television.

Regarding the relative lack of success of TV remakes:

Mr. Littlefield said that the woeful track record of previous remakes should not discourage network programmers from continuing to buy projects based on old hits. “But there has to be a series there,” he said. “It can’t be like a movie. You can’t trick them.”

Mr. Littlefield suggested a formula that could work: “At the risk of being oversimplistic: it also has to be good.”

OK, if "familiar titles" get more buzz than actual viewership, how about this: Instead of wasting money on remaking a show that has an already-established fanbase, why not instead devote part of primetime to rerunning TV classics that have been hits and have worked well with audiences? That way the networks will be giving more choice to viewers: a "then and now" type of lineup that'll get a wider age range of viewers tuning in.

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