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TV OLDIES GASPING FOR AIR

Old TV series are back in vogue, and at least four major studios – Universal, Columbia, Paramount and Warner Bros. – have drawn up the blueprints for proposed new cable networks devoted to reruns of the thousands of shows they’ve produced over the last four decades.

The studios are convinced that the time is right for these new services.

* Nick at Nite has soared to record Nielsens on the strength of “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Bewitched,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi” and black-and-white episodes of “I Love Lucy,” among others.

* Two Turner networks – TNT and TBS – have boosted their audience totals by stripping rerun oldies throughout the day. From 11 a.m. through 8 p.m. (with a two-hour break at 4 for a movie), TNT schedules everything from “Knots Landing” and “Chips” to “Medical Center” and “How the West Was Won.” TBS’ all-day warhorses include “Little House on the Prairie,” “Matlock,” “The Brady Bunch” and black-and-white episodes of “Perry Mason” and “The Andy Griffith Show.”

* Hollywood continues to plunder its TV-series vaults for big-grossing theatrical-movie versions of such perennials as “Star Trek,” “The Fugitive,” “The Flintstones,” “Maverick,” “The Addams Family,” the current hit “Casper” and the forthcoming mega-budgeted “Mission Impossible” with Tom Cruise.

The most specific plan to take advantage of the oldies trend is Nick at Nite’s active development of a 24-hours-a-day spinoff channel, which began to take shape on the drawing boards last year, spurred by the takeover of Paramount by Viacom, Nick’s parent company, says Rich Cronin, senior VP and general manager of Nick at Nite.

But cable operators are turning a deaf ear to any new rerun series networks because “our subscribers can already see these programs on TV stations and on other cable networks,” says Mike Egan, VP of programming for Cablevision Industries, a top-10 multisystem cable operator.

Egan’s comment reflects the view of most other MSOs, and Nick at Nite’s Cronin acknowledges that “we haven’t launched our new Nick at Nite channel because of regulation of the cable industry,” which kicked in when Congress passed the Cable Act of 1992.

But Cronin and other entrepreneurs of rerun-series networks are counting on a complete reversal by the new laissez-faire Republican-controlled Congress, which is writing legislation that would deregulate cable, causing what operators hope will be a roaring flow of fresh investment dollars. Cable systems would funnel this cash into upgrades that would triple or quadruple channel capacity and ignite demand for new program services, including studio-generated rerun networks.

Michael Fleming, president of the Game Show Network, which is owned and operated by Sony Pictures Entertainment, says that Sony’s Columbia Pictures TV division is beginning to think hard about stockpiling its library of TV-series programming for an inhouse cable network – or licensing it to outside parties for limited terms only.

Vaults bursting

Columbia’s vaults are bulging with product. The list includes “Father Knows Best,” “Dennis the Menace,” ‘The Partridge Family,” “All in the Family,” “Barney Miller,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Diffrent Strokes,” “The Jeffersons” and “Starsky & Hutch.”

One problem for a new Columbia cable channel is that its sister Game Show Network, which is only six months old and reaches a minuscule 1.5 million or so cable homes, has just begun to create an infrastructure (sales, marketing, affiliate relations, promotion) for the distribution of the rerun service.

By contrast, a Paramount rerun channel would go through the powerful MTV Networks cable operation (Paramount and MTV are divisions of Viacom) and an MCA/Universal rerun channel would be able to take advantage of the staff of the 15-year-old USA Network, which MCA owns a half interest in.

Paramount’s library is the biggest in the industry, consisting of hundreds of TV series from Paramount, Viacom, Spelling/Worldvision and Republic. A sampling would include “Star Trek,” “Cheers,” “Happy Days,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Mission Impossible,” “The Untouchables,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “Gunsmoke,” “Perry Mason” and “Beverly Hills 90210.”

The Universal assembly line has delivered thousands of episodes of TV series since the early ’50s. The top catalog items are shows like “Magnum P.I.,” “Ironside,” “The Rockford Files,” “Columbo,” “Miami Vice” and “Leave It to Beaver.”

WB cabling up

Warner Bros. is about to get some experience running a cable network as it starts assembling the TV series and movies for WEB, a 24-hours-a-day channel that will serve as a vehicle to convey the WB broadcast network’s new primetime series and Saturday-morning cartoons onto a cable system in areas of the country that can’t get them over the air.

Jamie Kellner, chief exec of the WB network, says the WEB cable vehicle, slated for launch in the fall of 1997, will consist of series reruns and theatrical movies derived from Warner Bros.’ inventory and from outside sources as well. “But I regard the reruns as connective tissue surrounding the original programming franchises of the WB network,” says Kellner.

Filling up on oldies

Although his sales pitch to cable operators will stress WB’s original series and cartoons, Kellner can eventually fill WEB with series such as “Maverick,” “The Waltons,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The F.B. I.,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Wonder Woman,” “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Alice.”

If the WB broadcast network comes up with a couple of successful series, the WEB service will be able to convince cable operators to slot it on the expanded basic tier with all of the mass-circulation cable networks. But a Universal, Paramount or Columbia rerun-series channel would most likely end up on a newproduct tier, which subscribers could get only by shelling out extra money each month.

Hardsell

“A channel that depends heavily on recycled inventory may find it tough to entice people to pay more money for it,” says Rob Stengel, senior VP of programming for Continental Cablevision, a top-five MSO.

If Stengel’s prediction is right and only a small percentage of subscribers is willing to buy these networks on separately priced tiers, the channels would never reach the critical mass that motivates advertisers to start purchasing 30-second spots.

And without advertising revenues, which are the lifeblood of Nick at Nite, TBS, TNT and most of the other big networks, the new rerun-series channels would end up as fringe curiosities, bought mainly by nostalgia junkies seeking comfort in an artificial world of bygone TV shows.

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