Today's TV landscape draws from the past

Many proposed answers to today’s fragmented TV landscape have drawn from broadcasting’s distant past: Think fully advertiser-sponsored programming and product integration, or primetime gameshows and talent showcases.

Add to those back-to-the-future wrinkles “hyperlocalism,” a popular buzz word proffered as salvation for local stations, which — like the newspaper industry — have gone from licenses to print money to financially challenged enterprises.

Amid this renewed talk of localism, two recent programs offer snapshots of TV as it was when stations truly dared to be local, creative and occasionally risk-taking, forging genuine bonds with their community. And while that’s probably not a panacea for what ails broadcasters, it’s at least helpful to recognize what worked then to grasp what might be possible now.

An upcoming chapter of PBS’ four-part documentary “Pioneers of Television” is subtitled “Local Kids’ TV.” It highlights the locally hosted shows that delighted children decades ago, while providing a springboard for talent like Jim Henson, Stan Freberg and Willard Scott (who played Bozo, for real, before acting like one on “Today”).

A&E this month successfully introduced “Beyond Scared Straight,” a series that closely mirrors the template of “Scared Straight!,” the Emmy- and Oscar-winning 1978 documentary about prisoners seeking to set teenage offenders on the straight and narrow.

Producer Arnold Shapiro — who wryly noted that all these years later, he can’t get out of prison — made the original, which premiered on KTLA in Los Angeles, for a mere $39,000. The independent station beat all three network owned-and-operated outlets combined, and KTLA’s switchboard “was lit up for two days,” Shapiro recalled.

In order for the documentary to air with all its profanity unedited — which felt jarring to audiences at the time — the producer had to get approval from the station’s owner, Gene Autry.

“KTLA was really a pioneering station,” Shapiro said, citing the various local productions that originated at the broadcaster before going on to success nationally.

Personally, I can recall faithfully watching local children’s shows like “Sheriff John” in the 1960s — and vividly remember the thrill of having my name read on the air. As “Pioneers of Television” notes, everything about those programs — including their blatant hucksterism — cemented ties between kids and the station in ways little modern fare can rival.

Today, the availability of secondary digital channels is opening the door for stations to engage in a flurry of experimentation, though mostly, this additional capacity is being approached as a low-cost way to see if there’s extra money to be mined from local advertisers.

In that regard, TV is hardly alone. As the New York Times noted, AOL is seeking to fill the void left by diminished newspaper and TV outlets with Patch.com, a network of websites devoted to chronicling city council meetings, high school football and other events that many traditional outlets are no longer staffed to cover.

If the idea of aggressive localism sounds familiar, it should. In the late 1990s, Barry Diller championed such a model with the USA Broadcasting station group, experimenting with something called “CityVision” at a Miami TV station. The programming included a “Politically Incorrect”-type discussion show consisting of local residents (politicians, businesspeople, even models) and, yes, a locally hosted afternoon kids’ block, along with live commercials and product integration.

The operation failed, but the allure of creating something with greater appeal to a fragmented audience lingers — and might be more germane now than it was in 1998, when a USA Broadcasting exec was quoted saying, “If you have fewer viewers, you can relate to them better.”

There’s little doubt that’s true — and given the pathetic state of local news (especially in Los Angeles), there’s hardly much to be lost by tinkering with traditional formats. Who knows, we might reach a day where over a week or two a local host can read practically every viewer’s name on air, the way old Sheriff John or the hosts of “Romper Room” once did.

What seems clear is the pioneers charged with exploring media’s current frontiers need to become better acquainted with its past. And as “Scared Straight” is demonstrating to a whole new audience 33 years later, a healthy dose of fear remains an awfully powerful motivator.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email brian.lowry@variety.com

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