For TV Networks, Every Thing Old Is New Again

From 'Hawaii Five-O' to 'Rockford Files,' Risk-Averse Execs Seek Built-in Audience

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NEW YORK ( -- Flick on the TV set, and chances are you'll come across a doctor, lawyer or cop pretty quickly. This fall, you might see the exact same doctors, lawyers and cops from seasons past.

No, it's not deja vu: Familiar TV characters are coming back from the dead faster than Michael Myers. For the fall slate, CBS is mulling a new version of "Hawaii Five-O," the venerable police drama that ran from 1968 to 1980; The CW has hopes for "Nikita," a reworking of the popular "La Femme Nikita" series that ran on cable's USA network between 1997 and 2001, and NBC has been considering a modern take on "The Rockford Files," the private-eye series that ran on its airwaves between 1974 and 1980.

None of these shows is guaranteed to get a go-ahead for the 2010-2011 season, to be unveiled this week as part of the so-called upfront marketplace in which TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory. The networks declined to make executives available for comment.

But the hope is that, in a new era of TV viewing, shaking the dust from a shelved classic might have added power. Advertisers still expect CBS, NBC and their rivals to snare the broadest audience possible, even though traditional TV viewing is gradually eroding. So that feat is harder to accomplish. In recent years, several networks have relied more steadily on spin-off shows that ape current hits, as CBS does with its "CSI" and "NCIS" series, and as NBC has done with its array of "Law & Order" dramas (CBS is said to be considering a spin off of its "Criminal Minds" drama for the coming season).

From a TV-network perspective, these revived properties might "have greater potential for success with less perceived risk," said Howard Bass, senior partner, advisory services, global media and entertainment center at Ernst & Young, because audiences already recognize them. That means TV networks don't need to promote them as heavily as they would brand-new concepts. What's more, they can use social media to reach hardcore fans of the older series who might talk about the relaunch months in advance.

Revival graveyard
Continued efforts to raise old shows from the grave might be taken as puzzling, given their inability in recent years to set the TV screen ablaze. NBC has tried its hand in recent seasons at rebooting both "The Bionic Woman" and "Knight Rider." Both were quickly canceled. The CW's effort to revive Fox's old "Beverly Hills 90201" has lasted more than a season, but the show isn't nearly as much of a guilty pleasure as its predecessor. A new version of "Melrose Place" that launched on the CW this past fall has fallen short, in critics' estimation. And ABC's remake this season of the sci-fi series "V" isn't a true powerhouse.

Besides, old TV listings are filled with the names of other programs that were loved in their first incarnation, but were not as popular in their second. ABC once tried to restart "Dragnet," the venerable police series. CBS and the now-defunct UPN each tried their hand at a new "Twilight Zone" (and UPN mounted a remake of "The Love Boat" called "Love Boat: The Next Wave") "WKRP in Cincinnati" got an update in syndication in the early 1990s, while a remake of "Kojak" had few people who loved it, baby, in 2005.

Cynics abound. The strategy "seems a little bit desperate," said Cathleen Campe, senior VP-media communications, at independent agency RPA. Even if a new version of a show is good, she said, "at some point it was canceled for a reason" because it fell out of favor with audiences.

"Re-spun series haven't really done much lately," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas's MPG. "'Melrose Place' has tanked. 'V' is a bubble show, at best. 'Battlestar Galactica' was probably one that you'd say surpassed the original, but it's really playing to a limited vertical base there." The challenge facing programmers, he added, is that polished versions of old programs are still based on concepts that hail "from an earlier generation, when tastes were different." And who's to say advertisers will be as eager to run commercials that lure an audience older than their favored 18-to-49 demographic?

Relying on the tried-and-true may simply be a knee-jerk reaction to one of the cruelest realities of the TV business: About 75% to 80% of new shows fail. TV networks may simply be taking a page from movie studios, which rely on all sorts of borrowed concepts -- from superheroes to old TV shows or characters like "Land of the Lost" or "The Coneheads" -- for theatrical ideas.

"There's less and less time for a show to be a hit," said Tom Weeks, a senior VP at LiquidThread, a branded-entertainment unit that is part of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group. Promoting a new version of "My Three Sons" to big audiences could be much easier than trying to explain the concepts behind an untested or oddball concept, he said.

Reviving long-gone TV shows may be a risky maneuver, but the technique is gaining more fans, said Mr. Weeks. After all, he said, "Zombies are huge right now."

Shows we dare the big guys to bring back

This costly 1979 NBC "Love Boat on the rails" show derailed almost immediately, and became emblematic of the Peacock's programming woes (the network is going through a similar period now). Could it be retooled with a "24"-like storyline that pushes the crew to try to save themselves from a growing conspiracy even as romance bubbles among the guests?

This oddball 1990 ABC drama brought together two things the public had never asked to see together -- a cop show and singing characters. With the success of "Glee" on Fox, the nation could be ready for more musical interludes.

The nation was fascinated with truckers in 1979 when this guy-and-his-chimp-in-a-truck series started on NBC. We don't know about truckers, but monkeys continue to win hearts. And couldn't a network cast any number of reality-show starlets as the seven "lady truckers" (with names like "Stacks" and "Angie") who joined this series in its second season?

This cerebral 1991 Fox comedy featured an office worker whose brain was filled with characters representing different parts of his personality. They'd chime in whenever he faced problems at the office or was out on a hot date. The gimmick was original but confusing, and could probably be replaced by Twitter feeds to be relevant to modern viewers.

Who wouldn't tune in to see a mild-mannered university professor transform into a panther or cobra to fight crime? Not enough people to keep this strange crime-fighting show on the air in 1983 on NBC. Wow, SyFy, listen up.

Got any ideas for series to be revived? Comment on this story online or send an e-mail to [email protected].

How big-screen revivals have fared

The small screen isn't the only place where prime-time remakes have had a mixed track record. Since 1998's "The Avengers" starring Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, turning TV classics into big-screen hits has proved to be a tough formula to crack. Nevertheless, 20th Century Fox will attempt to achieve what few TV franchises except "Star Trek" have before -- summer blockbuster status. Here's a look at recent TV remakes and how they fared on the big screen:

'THE MOD SQUAD,' 1999.
A top 10 show in its heyday, "The Mod Squad" was a popular early 1970s spy series for ABC that launched the careers of Peggy Lipton, Clarence Willliams III and Michael Cole. The same could not be said of the late-90s update starring Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi and Dennis Farina. The MGM film grossed only $13 million at the box office.

"Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," 2003. One of the few successful TV-to-film transitions of the last decade, "Charlie's Angels" struck girl-power gold in 2000 when Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu stepped into Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith's shoes. The first film grossed a surprise $125 million, while the heavily hyped sequel booked an impressive $100 million for Sony.

'I-SPY,' 2002.
What worked as a comedic action series for Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the 1960s didn't translate to the multiplex. Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson's reimagining of the classic characters only lured $33 million worth of ticket sales for Sony in 2002.

'BEWITCHED,' 2005.
Nora Ephron and Nicole Kidman couldn't quite replicate what made the Elizabeth Montgomery sitcom so lovable in the 1960s. The Sony remake only mustered $62 million despite an all-star supporting cast of Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine.

That same summer, Warner Bros. fared slightly better with a "Dukes of Hazzard" update starring Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Burt Reynolds and Jessica Simpson's short-shorts. The dukes drove away $80 million at the box office.

'MIAMI VICE,' 2006.
One of the most popular shows of the 1980s was only a medium-sized draw at the box office. Universal's Michael Mann-directed remake, starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, only ran away with $63 million in tickets.

'GET SMART,' 2008.
The long-in-the-works movie version of the Don Adams comedy series proved to be worth the wait. Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway helped Warner Bros. make the franchise a $130 million hit, with plans in the works for a sequel.
-- by Andrew Hampp

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