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There are a lot of shows currently airing on television that sound a lot like the shows that were airing on television about 20 years ago. To explain why, we have to consider several broad trends, all of which are leading to the reappearance of titles, characters, and plotlines that will seem vaguely familiar to a lot of viewers.

First, competition in the television market is more intense than ever before. Consumers have access to approximately 400 different scripted shows, available on traditional network channels, second-tier cable channels, on-demand services, and streaming channels. When there are that many shows competing for attention and advertising, the producers are desperate to find some way to stand out and differentiate their offering. By using a title that already is familiar to viewers, they quickly get past the introduction stage and have ready-made audiences of people who obsessively watched the first X-Files, wept at the last episode of The Gilmore Girls, and can’t wait to see how a modern MacGyver gets out of jams.

Lo-res_153984222-SSecond, the resurgence of remade, reimagined shows reflects consumer demand. In the past, people have always written or called networks to complain when their favorite shows were cancelled. Today though, their demands are shared widely and loudly, such that producers can gauge exactly how many viewers are likely to tune in if they really do bring back a fan favorite.

Third, the people calling for new versions are not just those who watched the originals. That is, larger audiences of fans have developed for long-gone shows, because they are available through on-demand and streaming services. Thus for example, two of the most popular streamed shows are The Sopranos, which faded to black in 1999, and The Wire, off the air since 2002. Because today’s viewers can binge watch the entire series, high quality shows continue to attract new fans, which in turn expands the market of people calling for more from the producers and actors.

Yet even with all these trends aligning, not all reboots succeed. The new The Muppets seemed like a no-brainer, but it was cancelled pretty quickly. One network producer noted a key success factor, explaining that he would never have considered bringing back Twin Peaks without David Lynch, the famous director who gave the original series its unique, unmistakable style. For the modern version of MTV’s Unplugged, the goal is less to trade on nostalgia for appearances by Eric Clapton or Nirvana on the show and more to introduce a new generation of music fans to the appeal of their favorite artists playing acoustic covers of their greatest hits.

These clear variations also suggest another insight. Even if a range of trends align to encourage new versions of old shows, products cannot rely solely on name recognition and awareness. As is true of any product, including a new/old television show “at the end of the day, it’s going to rise and fall based on its quality.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What environmental factors have the greatest influence on sparking this trend of new versions of old television shows?
  2. Why might young viewers feel nostalgic for shows that aired before they were born?

Source: Michael Grynbaum, “TV’s Big Bet on Nostalgia,” The New York Times, May 16, 2016.