Webs hope old hat is ratings topper

Far from the much-discussed goal of year-round original programming on the networks and Fox Broadcasting Co., the summer of ’93 is becoming notable for creative use of repeats — supporting the theory that what’s old enough may actually be new again.

ABC recently scored strong ratings for its repeat of the 10-hour, 10-year-old miniseries “The Thorn Birds,” and now comes word that NBC will broadcast its own venerable epic, “The Awakening Land,” in three consecutive two-hour Friday installments beginning Sept. 3, leading into the NBC Prods. serial “Trade Winds.”

A pioneer story based on a trilogy of novels by Conrad Richter, “Awakening Land” was originally telecast in 1978 and starred Elizabeth Montgomery, Hal Holbrook and Jane Seymour — who’s been making the most of the current era lately in her CBS series, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

NBC also confirmed plans to broadcast the pilot and final two hours of the original series “The Fugitive”– which aired from 1963-67 on ABC — at 10 p.m. on Aug. 18, 19 and 21, capitalizing on Warner Bros.’ feature release. The Arts & Entertainment network, which regularly carries the show, televised the same three hours over the weekend.

The retro trend doesn’t end there.

NBC is currently running the short-lived drama series “Mancuso, FBI”– canceled in 1990 — at 8 p.m.Fridays, and has rebroadcast the miniseries “Jackie Collins’ Lucky/Chances” (1990) and “A Woman Named Jackie” (1991) on Friday night.

Prime lead-in

NBC hopes the soapy miniseries “Awakening Land” will prime the audience for its “Great Escapes” serials and the eventual arrival of the “NBC Friday Night Mystery” in October. More to the point, the repeats are a relatively low-cost way to create the illusion of fresh summer programming beyond the usual mix of repeats and passed-on pilots.

It also doesn’t hurt from a bottom-line standpoint that many of the shows — among them “Mancuso,””Lucky/Chances” and the various Danielle Steel projects — were made by NBC Prods. and are owned by the network.

There have been some extremely encouraging ratings performances from such projects. “Thorn Birds” averaged a solid 10.8 rating, 20 share in Nielsen over six nights to win a week for ABC, while the 1989 miniseries “Small Sacrifices” ( 13.1/23 over two nights) emerged as the highest rated non-regular-season repeat of a multiparter since “North & South” in 1988.

It was in 1988, in fact, that the webs discovered their ability to use old series and movies, seeking to plug schedule holes created by the Writers Guild of America strike.

As an added benefit, “Thorn Birds” may help rekindle some interest in the six-hour miniseries follow-up ABC has in the works.

Three-network viewing was down 8% during July compared to the same period last year, a relatively modest drop considering that ’92 figures included NBC coverage of the Summer Olympics.

Fox Broadcasting Co. has suffered more notably from a relative shortage of original programming, dropping 19% compared to July ’92. The weblet — which, like CBS, will introduce several new programs later this month — aired new episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” last year but has said it wanted to focus this summer on launching its Monday movie as well as the newsmagazine “Front Page.”

Plum timeslots

ABC has also engaged in the traditional summer burn-off of canceled series, a practice made notable only by the plum time periods some of those shows have received. “Room for Two,” for example, aired remaining installments behind “Roseanne,””Delta” is running in the post-“Home Improvement” slot and the dramas “Jack’s Place” and “Sirens” played out their runs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, respectively.

Other ABC shows amortized with summer runs of unaired episodes are “Home Free ,””Crossroads” and “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” while CBS rolled out such long-on-the-shelf series as “Cutters” and “Family Dog.”

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