Sick of all the remakes on TV? They're not going anywhere

Posted at 1:11 PM, Dec 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-01 14:11:51-05

(CNN) -- The television industry seems to have survived the sacrilege of daring to continue the story of Roseanne's family, after first dumping the famous/infamous actress who played the part, Roseanne Barr, and then killing off her character, off-screen, with the most familiar resolve in the entertainment world: It's a business decision; not artistic decision.

"The Conners," ABC's now Roseanne-less reimagining of the remake of its once-revered series "Roseanne," held up reasonably well in its premiere, attracting about the same ratings as the finale of the new Roseanne's initial season. Which meant the show was still about the biggest attraction ABC has to offer America at this point in the diminished life of broadcast television.

And even if it inevitably shrinks toward its own diminishment, week by week, as is likely if the usual market forces of the commercial TV business prevail, "The Conners" could come to rest in that soft spot that marks much of audience expectations for broadcasters these days: good enough. Which translates to: sufficient to maintain a respectable advertising rate.

Therein lies the rationale for what seems to be the most egregious example of networks excavating, with almost ghoulish determination, the resting places of their oldies but goodies in search of anything that, once revivified, might still pull in the semblance of a crowd.

The television industry has a case of remake-mania. The network landscape has indeed begun to resemble a scene from "The Walking Dead," with many old shows coming back to life: "Magnum P.I.," "Dynasty," "MacGyver," "Will & Grace," "Prison Break," "Charmed," "S.W.A.T.," "Murphy Brown" — on and on. And more, many, many more to come: "Bewitched," "Party of Five," "Miami Vice," "The Jetsons," "The Munsters," and "Battle of the Network Stars." For pity's sake.

And they're even whispering about "NYPD Blue," "Frasier" and "The Office." We can probably expect "The Big Bang Theory" to follow its series finale a few weeks later with an announcement that the revival begins in the fall. (Sounds absurd? That's about what happened with "American Idol.")

Here's the thing: None of this is absurd, given the condition the business of television is in. The broadcast networks especially face a new daily reality: They used to be lumber yards; now they sell toothpicks.

And it is very hard to make a toothpick stand out. A huge part of the network business was, and is, marketing. In the past, the most important marketing that networks did for their new shows came within the episodes of their existing popular shows. The "promo" was an essential tool of program marketing.

Now, even the most popular shows draw fractions of their previous audiences, so, as Preston Beckman, former longtime senior executive for both NBC and Fox, recently told me, "It becomes really valuable if you can offer people something familiar, something that's pre-sold."

The shows being remade/rebooted/reimagined share that elusive quality: Somebody might remember them — like Uncle Ed, who used to come for Thanksgiving.

And it's hardly only the sweaty-palmed programmers at the broadcast networks who are trying to find a way to make their toothpicks stand out in the dense and threatening forest of choice that is television programming now. Cable is wandering through the same forbidding environment.

"Fear Factor," the old NBC hit, is back on MTV. "Party of Five," the once important Fox hit (more than 20 years ago) will return on Freeform. "Twin Peaks," the ABC cult hit of the 90s, emerged on Showtime. "Deal or No Deal" once an NBC hit, returns in December on CNBC, "Temptation Island," once the Fox naughty reality series of its time, is being redeveloped by USA.

Netflix is leading the streaming service charge backward into the TV past. That list is booming with new plantings of old bulbs. "One Day at a Time" has been a much-praised reinvention of the old Norman Lear sitcom. "Fuller House" has managed several seasons of revived kiddie comedy initiated by "Full House" on ABC in the 80s. "Gilmore Girls" came back to thrill its fans from the aughts. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" and "Lost in Space" — they are all back on Netflix.

And Hulu is bringing back "Veronica Mars," Apple TV is reviving "Amazing Stories," the old NBC attempt at "The Twilight Zone," which itself is getting a new version on CBS's steaming service.

Again, there is a business rationale for the streaming services. Beckman notes that Netflix, for example, is seeing deals for repeats of all kinds of former network series heading for termination because owners like ABC and NBC will be retaining distribution rights for their own streaming services. "Netflix needs to replace those shows with something people recognize — like a remake," Beckman told me.

It's probably time for all these networks to stop being a bit sheepish about their reliance on remakes. Sometimes they can be innovatively rethought, as has been done with "One Day at a Time," with a Cuban family experiencing contemporary life. The new "Party of Five" is reshaping the premise as a Hispanic family whose parents are forcibly deported. Remakes of "Kung Fu" and "Fantasy Island" plan to switch the leads from male to female. "The Jetsons" will be a live-action remake of the cartoon series.

There is, of course, a longstanding and often noble tradition in entertainment of reviving works across the range of genres. Broadway gives a Tony every year for "Best Revival." Nobody gets remade more than Shakespeare, frequently with impressive creativity. And nobody was ever a more aggressive re-shaper of material than Shakespeare himself, who rewrote original characters and stories from Holinshed, Petrarch, and whomever else he could "reimagine."

There is some very recent evidence that remakes can flourish. If you can remake a movie for a fourth time and dominate the box office for weeks, people tend to notice. A star is born, but in television today, an idea is remade, revived, re-booted, re-purposed, resurrected and reborn — repeatedly.

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