The feature world’s franchise fever has spread — and is now infecting TV.
Broadcasters continue to raid network and studio vaults in search of old favorites to dust off. For starters, NBC is plotting a modern-day “The Partridge Family,” while CBS is looking at reviving “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”
More recently, the CW turned to one of Warner Bros.’ top brands — Batman — and came up with “The Graysons,” a look at the Caped Crusader’s sidekick before he became known as Robin. NBC is deep into mythology, with “Crusoe” just launching and “Jason and the Argonauts” on the way. And over at ABC, the net is looking at a new spin on the early-’80s sci-fi miniseries “V.”
“Part of this is market driven,” says CBS Paramount Network TV prexy David Stapf, whose studio has been looking at several remakes. “There are so many choices for viewers right now that we’ve really got to zero in on how to get people’s attention.”
Indeed, as the network ratings continue to erode, it becomes even tougher to market new shows — particularly in the summertime, when circulation is at an all-time low.
A show like this fall’s “90210,” on the other hand, entered the fall with more buzz than any other new series, thanks to the built-in interest from fans of the original.
“The CW has a marketing challenge with all of its shows,” Stapf notes. “They’re ahead of the game by bringing in something that’s already familiar to their viewership, whether in title or tone.”
Indeed, the “90210” brand name put the new series on top of the charts that measured awareness of new TV entries among viewers. “90210” was neck-and-neck with another familiar title from the past NBC’s remake of “Knight Rider.”
In the case of “90210,” that familiarity came with a double-edged sword. People were more interested in talking about the show’s 1990s cast than its new incarnation. At the same time, a big chunk of CW’s viewership were too young to watch the original, and only knew it from flipping past repeats on cable, if at all.
But Stapf’s studio is buoyed by the early returns for “90210,” which is holding its own on. “Knight Rider,” on the other hand, launched last spring with a highly-rated TV movie, but as a series has not sped up the Nielsen charts just yet.
That perhaps proves another dictum: People may return for nostalgia’s sake to see how a favorite franchise has been updated, much like an opening weekend at the box office. But if viewers don’t like what they see, or perhaps weren’t anxious to see how their one-time favorite has evolved, then they’re out.
That’s why the jury’s still out on remakes of shows that have been off the year for more than a decade. “Hawaii 5-O” doesn’t come with the same baggage that “90210” did (there’s no chance Jack Lord can make a return appearance and steal the spotlight, after all), but that may not be a good thing. Too many years have passed since the original went off the air in 1980 — which means viewers under 40 might not care.
Stapf says he was nonetheless drawn to some nostalgia — “it’s got that great theme song,” he notes — and the fact that it’s a more sunny, idealistic cop drama in an age when police procedurals are uniformly dark and gritty.
Ditto “Streets of San Francisco,” although that one may be even less familiar with viewers.
The nostalgia factor also plays into the return of “V.” The original 1983 miniseries probably wouldn’t hold up to 2008 standards in terms of production quality, but that doesn’t matter to the millions of viewers who still remember being glued to the TV screen when the lizards tried to take over the earth.
“Whenever I mention ‘V’ to anybody, they still have a lot of good memories about the original movie and series,” says scribe Scott Peters. “It’s a science fiction icon, and too good to pass up.”
“V” will share the original’s name and basic idea, but the similarities will end there, Peters said.
That’s akin to how Sci-Fi channel resurrected “Battlestar Galactica,” which managed to score many more raves than the 1970s edition ever did, partly because it advanced and enhanced the original’s conceit.
With all these rehashed concepts and modern spins on old favorites, TV is only catching up with what the feature world has been doing for years.
Not only have classic TV shows been remade into movies — frequently with tongue-in-cheek — but this summer saw two more TV franchises revived on the big screen, “Sex and the City” and “The X-Files.”
What’s more, comicbook franchises, from Superman and Batman to the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, dominate the screen.
At CW, the network has taken its “Smallville” formula — take Superman’s pre-superhero, awkward teenage years, and turn it into a TV show — and is now applying it to “The Graysons,” about, yes, Robin (of Batman fame) and his pre-superhero, awkward teenage years.
NBC, meanwhile, hopes viewers will be interested in new takes on the age-old stories of “Crusoe” and “Merlin.”
Of course, not every TV show or dusty franchise is screaming for a revival. ABC’s “Fantasy Island” redux failed without Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize. Ditto UPN’s Captain Stubing-less “The Love Boat.” CBS’ “The Fugitive” didn’t capture viewers, who perhaps had already gotten their nostalgia fix via the Harrison Ford film a few years earlier. And viewers saw through ABC’s attempt at creating a Dick Wolf franchise with “L.A. Dragnet,” which perhaps should have been titled “L.A. and Order” instead.
Last year, NBC’s “Bionic Woman” also quickly dropped from view, once viewers decided they didn’t care much for the new incarnation.
In comedy, the nets have taken several shots at remaking “The Odd Couple” — even producing one version with an African American cast.
With so many failed revivals in the annals of primetime history, no one wants to become the network that just remakes old shows and resurrects popular franchises — and Stapf warns against that kind of nostalgia saturation.
“It’s far more important to get ‘90210’ right,” he says. “You want genuine success before rushing into a ‘Melrose Place’ or whatever else down the line.”