Last year, there were 412 scripted shows. In 2014, there were 376.
Those figures don’t include the thousands of reality shows available anytime, either.
From CBS to FX to HBO to Netflix, every network increased the amount of original programming it offered to audiences and subscribers, causing FX Networks CEO John Landgraf to declare it was the “peak of peak television.”
Having 412 scripted shows means, above all else, that the competition for viewers has never been fiercer. Especially with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu being added into the mix. And in an economy when fewer people are tuning in for appointment viewing — e.g., fewer people making sure they’re home on time for Law & Order week after week — that means executives have had to result to one piece of smart programming that most of us have already noticed.
They’re banking on nostalgia and returning to shows of decades past.
The X-Files, Full House, 24, Twin Peaks, Coach and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are just a few examples of shows that have found their way back to television sets, are in development, or are being discussed for a possible return.
Last year, there were 412 scripted shows on television.
Why would networks, especially those that don’t have additional income from premium cable subscriptions, bring back older shows instead of trying to compete with the amount of original programming streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon seem to produce?
Simple: Less money spent on marketing, less time spent on trying to develop a core audience, and a higher chance that the most important demographic will stick around to watch the shows while they air.
Let’s look at that specific demographic. It used to be that the most important demographic was the 18-34 age group. After all, they were the ones with more time to sit and watch television, they typically had more disposable income, and they moved the pop culture conversation forward.
When Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, for example, it was a show created for the youngest demographic that ensured those magical 18- to 34-year-old men and women were sitting at home at 11:30 on a Saturday night. Not only that, but that they were prepared to sit through advertisements on NBC for an hour and a half to be a part of this televised comedic revolution.
That kind of time-specific dedication doesn’t exist anymore. Just look at everything that happened with Community. It’s not that Community wasn’t one of NBC’s most successful shows; it just wasn’t performing where it counted for the network: in the Nielsen ratings. It’s a touchy subject for show creator Dan Harmon, and one he’s discussed at length in the past. Watch him talking about how outdated the system is in the video below.
Online, Community was one of the most successful shows NBC has had in a long time, mirroring the level of fan commitment 30 Rock developed while it was on air. But Community had the unfortunate luck of airing on Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. ET.
With the show so readily available online and on iTunes the following day, there was no reason for the show’s target demographic — that oh-so-special 18-34 group — to miss a night out with friends just to watch it live. Instead, more and more people within this group are turning to streaming services to catch quality television. That isn’t to say streaming hasn’t been infected by this idea, though. Netflix recently decided to bring back Full House, and prior to that, bought the rights to Arrested Development and produced a fourth season of the cult show. The service understood just as well as the network that if a built-in audience existed, it wouldn’t have to do much to draw people in.
Still, networks put in their own research, followed the trends and quickly realized that the 18-34 group was no longer the most important. Hell, many of the them didn’t even own television sets anymore. Instead, the most important group became 35- to 54-year-olds.
Unlike the 18-34 demographic, this older group still used television sets and could actually afford to purchase cable subscriptions. They were also far more likely to be home for a show while it aired, helping to improve a network’s dwindling numbers in Nielsen rating polls.
But what was the best way to encourage this untapped group of potential viewers to stay home and watch television, without having to promote an entirely new show full of entirely new characters and try to hook them from the pilot?
Again, simple: Bring back shows they were already familiar with.
In an era when every network is competing with every other more than it ever has before, and the amount of programming is at an all-time high, one of the only advantages one network has over another is its library of legacy series.
One of the trickiest parts of launching a new show is ensuring there’s an audience who’s going to keep coming back for more week after week. Unless you’re Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder), the task can seem almost impossible.
It’s another perfect example of why a network would rather reboot an old show than spend the time trying to develop a new show that, as we know from pilot season, has a higher chance of failing than it does succeeding. As Landgraf points out in the video below, it’s nearly impossible for a show to find its audience within the first season.
Last year, 85 pilots were ordered across all the networks, which is 10 fewer than the previous year. Of those 85 pilots, only a handful were ordered to full series. We no longer live in an age where you can bank on a show maybe taking off in its second season, and cut your losses until then. If a series doesn’t show any sign of promise within the first six episodes, it likely gets cut. With networks losing audiences and profit at record levels, there’s no longer any room for “what if” scenarios.
Looking at all that a network faces when choosing which shows to approve to series and which ones to cut, it makes total sense that a show like The X-Files would be brought back, no questions asked.
It was one of Fox’s most popular series of all time back in the 1990s. Now, there’s no need to build up a new audience, or spend an entire season introducing these characters to people while hoping that viewers will want to stick around.
Everyone who watches The X-Files when it premieres on Sunday will know who Agent Fox Mulder and Agent Dana Scully are. Everyone who watches The X-Files on Sunday will know exactly what they’re getting into and what they can expect out of it. Those who tune in to watch the show on Sunday will do so because it’s a show they remember watching on television when it aired, and they’ll make the time to watch it live.
The network gets exactly what it wants and needs out of the miniseries without having to spend an overly large amount of money on marketing. That’s the final point, and one of the biggest reasons a network would decide to revamp an older series instead of putting the time into developing a new one.
Let’s revisit the number of pilots that got ordered last season: 85. That means that networks spent a large chunk of change on creating marketing materials for 85 shows that may or may not have actually gone anywhere.
There’s time spent on making the characters seem intriguing enough that people will want to dedicate a few hours of their lives to seeing what happens. Then there’s an enormous amount of money spent on making sure people are aware that the shows even exist. Billboards, commercials and even print ads are all taken out to ensure the show gets as much attention as it possibly can before the pilot even airs.
Actors are asked to do daytime and late-night talk shows to promote the series, while promotional materials are sent just about everywhere in hopes that even the smallest of blogs will write up a quick post.
The only advantage one network has over another is its library of legacy series.
All of which adds up to millions of dollars spent on a show that may or may not even make it past episode six. Bringing back an older show doesn’t just assure that an audience will be there and hopefully beat out the other 411 shows in competition; it also doesn’t require nearly as much of a marketing spend.
Why waste money on a show that your own network may not really believe in when you can hash out a deal to bring back a guaranteed winner? (Or a financial winner, at least — just because a show succeeds in ratings and online hype doesn’t mean it’s going to be great.)
Unfortunately, this isn’t a trend. It’s not something that’s going to disappear in the next year or two, because networks still haven’t figured out how to make back the money they’ve lost. What we’re going to be seeing a lot more of is rehashed television shows and, even more disappointing, uninteresting adaptations of films. Just look at Limitless, Code Black and Minority Report.
Networks don’t have the security blanket of additional subscription fees that premium cable channels like HBO and streaming services do, so they’re not going to even bother. While Netflix and HBO may take a risk on more original series, they too will continue to look into possible remakes or spinoffs of popular series. Why wouldn’t they? It’s practically a guaranteed return on investment.
This isn’t to say that pilot season is going anywhere or that networks will stop developing original series entirely, but they’ll be drowned out by remake after remake. So instead of asking what networks will come out with next, or what the next Lost is, be prepared for the inevitable announcement that ABC is remaking the series. This is the future of network television.