It’s new! Actually, it’s second-hand. It’s hip! Well, it’s vintage. It’s the next frontier in television programming! In other words, networks can afford it.
“Recycled tv” has arrived.
Television execs are increasingly turning to their medium’s own illustrious past these days, unearthing clips from old shows and patching them together. The idea is to control costs while tapping into an experience by definition familiar to all tv viewers: tv itself.
“More and more people want to do clip shows because they’re cheaper to make than original programs,” says Susie Vaughn, prexy of Clips Clearance Services, a company specializing in acquisition of clip rights.
In fact, the cost savings from clip shows are marginal and only part of their attraction. “The appeal of these clip shows has less to do with costs than that we’ve now got an entire generation of people who grew up with television, for whom this stuff has enormous resonance,” says Garth Ancier, executive producer of NBC’s new clip series, “Sunday Best.”
“It’s a sound comic device to take something and use it out of context,” says Chris Albrecht, HBO’s senior v.p. for programming. “Also, our audience can relate to the nostalgia element in these clips.”
The shows have not been uniformly popular. ABC fared well during November sweeps with a special called “Tube Test” which used clips to quiz viewers on their tv literacy. The show won its time period, garnering an impressive 12.9/23 rating. A sequel is in the works.
But last week, NBC received tepid ratings for an “L.A. Law 100th Episode” clip compilation narrated by Jane Pauley. Earlier this season, the Peacock network scored well with a “Cheers'” 200th episode retrospective show.
This weekend, CBS tries to bolster its sweeps standings with an entire weekend of clip specials from “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “All In the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
But the most ambitious foray of all into self-referential tv was launched three weeks ago by NBC. “Sunday Best,” a series that mixes clips from tv shows with original material examining the nutty world of broadcasting, premiered on Sunday, Feb. 3 at 7:00 p.m. (opposite CBS’ mighty “60 Minutes”). So far, the show has raised the network’s low ratings at that hour a couple of points, but its viewership fell 23% in the second airing.
According to insiders, “Sunday Best” is by no means cheap, costing almost $800,000 per hour. “Clip shows are cheaper to do than hour drama, but almost everything is,” says Ancier.
He admits that “the clip side of the show has been more complicated to do than anyone expected.” Use of each clip must be cleared by the copyright owner, the actors, writers and directors associated with the material.
The series is also hampered by a predictable lack of cooperation from competing networks (except for Fox). “Why should we give NBC our clips?” asks an exec at another network. “It makes sense for Fox, but not for us. Why should we help them?”
Among the notable clips which “Sunday Best” has been prevented from showing are an old commercial for “Fluffo,” a “Crisco” precursor, featuring a young Mike Wallace (Wallace nixed it); all scenes from “The Flying Nun” (Sally Field says no); and Dan Quayle’s guest appearance on “Major Dad” (Quayle’s contract barred use of the scene on other shows). Future episodes will rely less on clips, according to Ancier.
‘” Sunday Best’ has to walk a real fine line,” says Vaughn, who oversees clip clearance for the show. “They want it to have a ‘Saturday Night Live’ kind of edge, but no one will let them use their clips if they think they’re being parodied.”
In the syndication market, King World last fall launched “Instant Recall,” a half-hour program using news footage and entertainment clips to create a time capsule effect. It had a disappointing opening, averaging a rating of 1.9 in recent weeks, and ranking 69th in a field of 111 nationally syndicated shows.
“Some clip rates can be prohibitively expensive,” says King World prexy Michael King. However, “Instant Recall” has the financial advantage of being a news show, which legally entitles it to use many clips for free. Next month, King and his associates will decide whether to continue production of the show.
A more eccentric example of tv mining its own past is the HBO sitcom “Dream On,” which integrates black & white tv clips from the MCA/Universal vaults into the story of a yuppie whose innermost thoughts are represented by the clips.
“Dream On” was born of MCA prexy Sid Sheinberg’s desire to find use for the studio’s archive of 800 half hours of tv anthology shows from the 1950s and ’60s. Sheinberg approached director John Landis about doing a clip show set in an “Animal House”-style fraternity house. Instead, Landis suggested incorporating the clips into an ongoing story line about the travails of a divorced book editor who grew up in the ’50s.
The HBO show costs about a third of the price of standard network sitcoms, but not, its producers insist, because about 10% of it consists of clips.
“There are huge costs associated with clips,” says Albrecht at HBO. “There are fees for writers, directors, editors, whomever owned the rights intially. Searching for the right material is also costly and cumbersome. These aren’t cheap shows to do.”
Despite the costs, HBO Prods, has an order from ABC for a pilot presentation for another series relying heavily on clips from tv and movies for ABC. The show will weave together clips into a James Bond spoof, using dubbed dialog the way Woody Allen did in the cult classic “What’s Up Tiger Lily?”
Still, even Ancier at “Sunday Best” has no illusions about the difficulties facing his show.
“We almost ran a piece our first week stringing together the 70 or so shows which have bit the dust opposite ’60 Minutes,’ ” he says. “But we decided that would be too self-defeating.”