Upfronts / Newfronts

TV Broadcasters Make Nostalgia Push With Fall Season -- Again

From 'Alice in Wonderland' to '24,' Familiar Stories to Fight Cable and the Web

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TV viewers will be forgiven if they feel a sense of deja vu when new shows debut in September. With competition from cable and the web growing, broadcasters are leaning more on past successes and big names to find fresh hits.

Kiefer Sutherland is coming back in a new '24'
Kiefer Sutherland is coming back in a new '24' Credit: Fox

NBC is reviving "Ironside," a hit police drama from almost 50 years ago. Fox is bringing back Kiefer Sutherland in "24" after three years on the shelf and ABC is anchoring a night of new shows with a spin-off from parent Walt Disney Co.'s "Avengers" movie. Shows based on "Dracula," "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are also on network schedules.

Known concepts with big-name actors are a proven way to grab viewers, said Neal Baer, exec producer of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" for 11 years. A star's name can make a show stand out early on, providing comfort to programmers without necessarily boosting costs that can run as high as $4 million for a single hour of TV.

"It's a leg-up if people are already familiar," said Mr. Baer, who's now working on the new CBS show "Under the Dome," from the book by Stephen King. "However, that gets you only so far. The show still needs to be well-written and well-cast."

The trail of canceled TV revivals is as long as the successes. ABC's "Charlie's Angels" in 2011 was halted in its first season, as were NBC's "Knight Rider" and "Law & Order: Los Angeles." "Hawaii Five-O," a 1960s show that resurfaced in 2010, has been profitable for CBS Corp., while "Parenthood," based on the 1989 Universal Pictures film, has been a stalwart for NBC since 2010.

Of the new shows introduced since September, just three, CBS's Sherlock Holmes drama "Elementary," Fox's "The Following" with Kevin Bacon and NBC's "Revolution," rank among the top 25 in the ratings.

"It's a trend that's been happening for a while, although it's a little more pronounced this year," Kelly Kahl, who oversees CBS's prime-time schedule, said in an interview. "You have to look at the franchise and figure out if it's familiar enough to reboot. You have to decide, 'Can you be true to the original story and still be contemporary?'"

Broadcasters introduced new shows this week at their upfront presentations to advertisers, ahead of negotiations over ad time in the coming season. The networks face more competition from cable, which boasts the top series among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers that advertisers target, with "The Walking Dead" from AMC.

Collectively, the audience for the four major broadcast networks is down 7.2% this season in total viewers and 11% in the 18-to-49 group, according to Nielsen data. Cable is down as much as 2%. Both segments are pressing to have TV ratings include web viewing, given the growth of video streaming on tablets and smartphones.

Cable advertising is growing faster, Benjamin Swinburne, a Morgan Stanley analyst, wrote last month. Broadcast networks will receive an estimated $9.18 billion in advance ad commitments, in the same ballpark as last year, while cable programmers will get $10.7 billion, a 6% gain.

In September, Academy Award winner Robin Williams returns to series TV for the first time since "Mork & Mindy" ended 30 years ago. He's the lead in the CBS comedy "The Crazy Ones" as the quirky head of an ad agency. Sarah Michelle Gellar, known as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from TV, is his daughter.

Michael J. Fox also reappears in prime time in September with "The Michael J. Fox Show," a comedy on NBC about a news anchor who returns to work after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Mr. Fox, 51, star of "Family Ties" and "Spin City," stepped back from TV in 2000 during his own battle with the disease before finding a medical regimen that let him return.

Chris Geraci, a media buyer with OMD, said banking on well-known stars such as Michael J. Fox or reviving older shows has the added advantage of making it easier for advertisers to remember a new program in a crowded upfront season.

"There's so much new stuff to see every year and when you hear that Michael J. Fox is on a new show, you at least have a sense of what to expect," Mr. Geraci said in an interview.

NBC is also reviving "Ironside," the 1970s police show that featured Raymond Burr in the title role as a detective in a wheelchair. Veteran TV actor Blair Underwood stars in the retooled version.

Having a big star doesn't automatically add to the cost of a new show, said Laura Martin, a Needham & Co. analyst, who estimates a single hour of prime-time broadcast TV costs $2 million to $4 million to produce.

ABC, down 6.5% in this season's ratings, is adding 12 new programs including "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," an "Avengers"-inspired series featuring Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson from the films.

"Big name actors are not a meaningful tax on economics until several seasons of a show have proven successful," Ms. Martin said in an e-mail. "Then it's way worse if there are five mid-level guys, like 'Friends,' than one big star, like Charlie Sheen."

Fox, which ordered the 12-episode revival of the espionage series "24," didn't rule out extending the show after the initial run. The series, which ran for eight seasons until 2010, features Mr. Sutherland as the terror-fighting agent Jack Bauer.

The current trend toward nostalgia is cyclical, according to Brian Hughes, who analyzes audience trends for media buying agency MagnaGlobal, part of Interpublic Group of Cos.

"I don't want to call it lazy," Mr. Hughes said in an interview. "But it's easier to reuse or recycle than trying to invent something from scratch."

~ Bloomberg News ~