Skip to Content

Bye-Bye Yesterday

Bye-Bye Yesterday

Last week I did a piece on how early syndication of movies to TV provided a culturally unifying base for Baby Boomers.  Most of us, however, probably think of syndication as being less about movies and more about recycling old TV shows.  And, in time, so it became.

TV writer/producer/director Bill Persky remembers syndication being a movie-driven business in the medium’s early years since “…there weren’t that many series to syndicate…”  By the 60s, however, TV production companies had amassed enough defunct TV shows to turn syndication into an increasingly profitable series-recycling business feeding a bottomless market.  Independent stations filled their days with a patchwork quilt of old TV shows, old movies, local news and sports, and even network affiliates had hours to fill between blocks of network programming.

The recycling of old TV shows had the same impact on Boomers recycling old movies did; it gave them a set of shared generational pop culture references extending back beyond their own era.  Kids home for the summer in the 1960s could watch, during the day, the TV shows their parents had watched in prime time in the 1950s.  As well as their parents, Boomers came to instantly recognize the stammering cadence of The Beaver from Leave It to Beaver (“Gee, Wally, we could get in trouble!”), the hard, clipped tones of Eliot Ness from The Untouchables (“It’s time to put the lid on Mr. Nitti.”), the lockjawed ethereality of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone’s intros (“Presented for your approval…”), Jack Webb’s patient head nods on Dragnet (“Just the facts, ma’am.”), Lucy Ricardo’s bawl and her husband Ricky’s reprimanding “Lu-CEEE!”,  Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice!  The moon!” and his sidekick Ed Norton’s “Hey, Ralpheeboy!”

Sometimes what had been Boomers’ parents’ straight-faced entertainment became Boomers’ camp, lampooned on Saturday Night Live and SCTV, but nevertheless, they were still connected to an ongoing, ever-evolving pop culture stream dating back to the early days of network TV.

And then later, as young adults, Boomers re-discovered their own youthful touchstones:  “There is nothing wrong with your television set” (The Outer Limits), “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!” (The Odd Couple), “Most illogical” (Star Trek), “Shuddup you!” (All in the Family).

Eventually, that connection would pay off on the big screen.

TV shows making the jump to the movie screen is not a new development.  As far back as the 1950s, the small screen was providing fodder for the big screen.  Classic courtroom suspenser Twelve Angry Men (1957), domestic drama The Catered Affair (1956), corporate morality play Patterns (1956), Korean War drama The Rack (1956), boxing flick Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), bleak portrayal of alcoholism The Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and Best Picture Oscar-winner Marty (1955) all began as TV dramas.

The circumstances of the time made such big screen upgrades uniquely viable.  Most of the original programs had aired on TV in the early 50s when less than half of American households had a television set, and these shows had been performed live which, in those days before videotape, meant no reruns; they were one-time-only events.  Factor in a small viewership spread across three networks, and the favorable math was that most moviegoers hadn’t seen the TV originals.  They’d heard the critical huzzahs, but could only wonder what all the fuss had been about.  Big screen versions thus found an eager, interested, and predominantly virginal audience.

In the 60s, TV shows were still turning up on the big screen, but the product was often less laudable and the reasons more pathetic.

By the 60s and into the 70s, most of the major studios were in dire financial condition, and production had fallen to an all-time low.  In the 60s, average annual output had dropped to 175 titles from the previous decade’s yearly average of 253, and still further to 118 in the 70s with the worst-ever year being 1977 and its total output from the majors of a threadbare 78 movies.

Desperate to feed their distribution pipelines, the studios turned to their TV production arms — not to adapt TV originals, but to throw them more-or-less as-is onto the big screen.  Universal’s first TV movie, The Killers (1964), couldn’t find a network buyer because of its (for the time) graphic violence, so the studio released it as a theatrical.  In 1968, the studio stitched together two episodes of the ABC series Arrest and Trial and released it theatrically as Sergeant Stryker. MGM had already pulled the same maneuver with its successful spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., releasing a two-parter as the theatrical One Spy Too Many (1966).  In 1978, trying to quickly jump on the space opera craze launched by Star Wars the year before, Universal released the pilot episode of its series Battlestar Galactica series as a theatrical, and combined several other episodes for two more big screen releases for overseas markets.

But, the idea of making an original film based on a series still hadn’t taken a major hold. There were several on-the-cheap efforts:  big screen versions of McHale’s Navy and The Munsters were indistinguishable in both production value and quality from their TV sources.  More respectable were 1954’s visually stylish Dragnet, turned out by series creator Jack Webb in the midst of the series’ first 1951-59 run, and 1967’s Gunn, Blake Edward’s big screen adaptation of his popular 1958-61 private eye series.

By the end of the 1970s, however, thinking would change, and TV would be universally considered a raw ore ripe for exploitation and big screen refining.  Oddly, that change of mind would come about because of a big screen version not of a TV success, but of what had been an unadulterated TV flop…saved only through the reviving properties of syndication.

The Star Trek brand has become such a Gibraltar on the pop culture terrain, it’s hard to imagine how close it came to disappearing almost as soon as it appeared.  NBC’s decision to cancel the original series after 79 episodes in 1969 is often characterized – especially by Trekkies – as an example of typical network blockheadedness:  NBC hadn’t known what they had, they hadn’t understood the show’s audience, they kept moving the show to increasingly lethal time slots – all of which is true.

But what is also true is that over the course of the show’s first 1966-67 season, Star Trek nosedived from time slot winner in its debut episode to finishing the season 51st out of a field of 94 shows…and then continued to lose even more ground over the next two seasons.  The surprise isn’t that NBC had cancelled the show, but that the net had stuck with a firmly demonstrated loser for a second and third season.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had wanted the series to break sci fi out of its juvenile ghetto, but it hadn’t played out that way.  The show’s most devoted fans tended to be young, but most of them couldn’t stay up late enough to watch the show, particularly as NBC kept scheduling it later at night with each down-sliding season.

As David Gerrold explains in his 1973 look at the series and the fan phenomenon following its cancellation — The World of Star Trek: The Show the Network Could Not Kill! — the salvation of the franchise was in the series’ syndication “almost immediately” after NBC had axed the show.  In most markets where the series had been syndicated, stations “stripped” the show across the week, usually in early evening hours.  What this meant was that young viewers who hadn’t been able to watch the show in its weekly prime time slot on NBC could now watch it five-seven timeseach week!

Over the next decade, that expanding, youthful fan base, with its kamikaze-like dedication to the series, fueled a merchandising bonanza which included records, games, books, action figures, even a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon version of the show.  Fans would meet at ever-larger conventions to buy and swap memorabilia and merchandise as well as meet the show’s stars.

And then came Star Wars. The monumental success of George Lucas’ extraterrestrial epic had studios large and small looking to jump on the sci fi bandwagon (remember Universal and their repurposed Battlestar Galactica pilot?).  Paramount, which had acquired the Star Trek property when it had bought series producer Desilu in 1967, went to their ST brand and its ten-year-in-the-making, merchandise-devouring, convention-gathering mass audience.

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (1979) was an enormous creative disappointment, but its $139 million worldwide take was proof-positive of how strongly the brand had been cultivated among fans with its years and years of reruns. Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan (1982) – largely considered the best of the ST films – truly established the film franchise (box office:  $97 million worldwide) and launched the brand through five more features with the cast of the original series, the spinoff TV series’ Star Trek:  The Next Generation, Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, Star Trek:  Voyager, prequel series Star Trek:  Enterprise, another string of four films featuring the Next Generation cast, and most recently, J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the film franchise with origin story, Star Trek (2009).

Without syndication re-introducing the series to a new class of viewers, it’s at least arguable as to whether or not NBC’s prime time bomb would have become a 45-year multi-billion dollar money machine it did.

In Hollywood, success almost always breeds unthinking, rabid imitation, and ever since Paramount struck the mother lode with Star Trek, movie companies have scoured their backlist for TV properties ripe for big screen exploitation, hoping for a pre-fab audience primed by years of syndication.  Since the 1979 Star Trek feature, series from the 50s – 80s that have been adapted into big screen theatricals include Charlie’s Angels (two films), The Addams Family (two films), another Dragnet movie, The Brady Bunch (two films), Zorro (two films), S.W.A.T., Mission:  Impossible (three films), Car 54 — Where Are You?, Bewitched, Starsky and Hutch, I Spy, The Avengers, The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, Maverick, another McHale’s Navy movie, The Saint, The Wild Wild West, My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space, Land of the Lost, The Fugitive, The Honeymooners, Sergeant Bilko, The Twilight Zone, The Mod Squad, The Avengers, Miami Vice, The A Team, The Untouchables, The Dukes of Hazzard (one theatrical and a direct-to-DVD sequel), and live-action versions of TV cartoons Scooby Doo (two films), The Alvin Show (two films), Rocky and Bullwinkle,Dudley Do-Right, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (three films and one in the pipeline for 2012), Speed Racer, Yogi Bear,Josie and the Pussycats, Mr. Magoo, and The Flintstones (two films).

The choices for a big screen upgrade have often been indiscriminate, blind to the merits – or lack thereof – of the source material, oblivious to how much of the show’s success was due to the unrepeatable chemistry of the original cast and/or its appearance at a certain point in pop culture, and regularly overestimate the strength of the brand’s connection with the public.  Consequently, there have been few bonafide hits, still fewer efforts that have been particularly good, and some – too many, acftually – that have been simply, plainly, utterly awful (Car 54 – Where Are You? [1994], McHale’s Navy [1997], My Favorite Martian [199], Land of the Lost [2009], The Honeymooners [2005], Sergeant Bilko [1996] – just to name a few).

Whatever one thinks of the phenomenon – another sign of Hollywood’s creative poverty, or further evidence of the industry’s propensity for trying to squeeze yet more blood out of an already squeezed stone — the changing shape of the syndication market raises the question of how sustainable the tactic might be going forward.  The thinking behind these adaptations is to exploit the brand loyalty of fans of the original.  But what happens when the key to box office success is a generation of moviegoer for whom these titles may mean little or nothing?

Bill Persky, who by his estimate has “…been involved with two of the most rerun series (The Dick Van Dyke Show and That Girl),” talks about the changing syndication terrain:

I remember a Writer’s Guild contract negotiation back in the 60s that led to a strike over reuse of material which, at that point, amounted to syndication on network-owned stations and packages of independents which would purchase sixth-through-tenth reruns as a group.  We had no idea of what was possible (for reuse).  I remember everyone’s passion as we walked the picket line, with no concept of what was to come:  cable and DVDs.  The studios might have known…but held it close to the vest and (negotiated) ‘for all future use,’ a concept that made no sense to us at the time.  Now, out of nowhere (comes) the Internet, Hulu, and the rest, and probably in the future a device that will be implanted at birth allowing you to watch things in the privacy of your own brain.”

With all of these alternate on-demand forms of TV viewing, TV programmers – broadcast and cable – don’t see the value in drawing on the vast stores of old TV shows.  “Most real i.e. original fans,” says Persky, “have purchased the DVD sets of their favorite shows,” or can download them from the likes of Netflix or Hulu.

As happened with old movies, the new delivery systems have undercut the value of library TV product to station programmers.  With old shows permanently and readily available thanks to DVDs and Internet sources, and the competitive need to cut through the clutter of the expanding cable universe, most programmers have moved away from old syndicated titles to focus on distinctive original programming and/or only high value syndicated product, typically major successes from within the experiential span of young viewers.

Consequently, on most local stations and on the most popular cable networks, it’s rare to find anything older than shows from the 90s, and even then only when they have the visibility of a Seinfeld, Friends, or Everybody Loves Raymond. Even TV Land, once the bastion of Golden Oldie TV shows, has been pushing the real oldies further into non-prime hours while increasingly dedicating peak viewing slots to original programming and newer syndicated fare.

Too, shows now go into syndication while they’re still airing on the networks – House, Law & Order SVU, How I Met Your Mother, to name just a few – a complete about-face from the 60s-80s protocol when programs were syndicated only after cancellation, and often after some sort of cooling off period.  Today, the strategy seems to be strike while the iron is hot, and then beat the hell out of it.  There’s no need for programmers to draw on older, lesser known shows when they can fill viewing hours with reruns of the most popular TV shows still on the air…and that seems to be the way the highly fragmented audience of today – overwhelmed by too many choices and looking for the comfort of something familiar and reliable — likes it.

Persky believes “a whole new audience” for oldies is being created by these new delivery systems “as the children of older fans are exposed to the shows for the first time (through) ‘on-demand’ (pipelines) at home, usually on the computer.”

That’s probably true to some extent, just as undoubtedly some younger viewers are being exposed to vintage films thanks to DVDs or downloads acquired by older family members.

But it’s also probably true that the same larger trend which has disconnected Gen Y/Xers from classic cinema is similarly cutting them off from classic TV.

And in this, what’s happened to the syndication of vintage movies and TV shows is emblematic of a much greater paradigm shift in media –  a shift increasingly taking the “mass” out of mass media.

Some years ago, I read an editorial by a sociologist pointing out a weakness in a new generation of students’ reliance on the Internet for scholastic research.  In the old haul-out-the-encyclopedia days, he said, there was always the possibility of – if I remember his phrase correctly – “the accidental acquisition of knowledge.” Put simply, as you leafed through a book looking for what you needed, you would often stumble across items which would catch your eye, pique your interest.

That’s the same concept film critic Stephen Whitty brought up in last week’s piece when he used the analogy of the newspaper (another dying mass medium) when talking about the “happy accidents” which occurred flipping through the TV dial in pre-cable days:  “…you turn the page to jump with something and there’s an article on something you hadn’t even thought of…”

Subscription radio and music downloads; pay-TV, DVDs and movie and TV show downloads; online news sites tailored to every ideological, political persuasion– we have at our disposal an information and entertainment technology allowing us each individually to call up only what we want, only when we want it.  But as Whitty said last week, “…you can always get what you’re looking for, if you know what you’re looking for.”

Infinite choice is great if you have infinite knowledge of what you can choose from.  But lacking that, the typical, understandable tendency is to gravitate to the familiar:  bands we know, shows we know, stars we know.  It’s no doubt partly what’s behind the popularity of sequels; at $10 a ticket (or more, and that’s doesn’t include snacks), you want to know beforehand what’re you’re getting.

The more control we have over information and entertainment reception, the less possibility there is for “happy accidents” – exposure to the new and unknown, to the emerging and the missed, to that which makes us question our assumptions about what we think we know, to the window on the past which can help us understand where we came from, and in so doing gain some insight into how we’ve become what we’ve become.

Also lost in this fracturing, fragmenting of the mass audience is the psychological adrenaline derived from a shared experience, as well as the cultural glue — the network of common references — which gave us some kind of connection to each other, however glib and superficial.  Whereas there had been a time when we’d gather at school or work to bond comparing reactions to what we’d all seen the night before, many of us now find we’d all been watching something different:  on TV, on TiVo, on line.

We now have the ability – and it grows by the day – to create little individualized, insular bubbles in which only the here and now is of relevance, filled only with information we agree with, entertained by the comfortably familiar we’ve seen a thousand times before.

– Bill Mesce