Monday, July 7, 2014

The Comfort TV Renaissance

Well, this was unexpected.

When I started this blog two years ago, one of the first pieces I wrote expressed my hope that the television shows of the 1950s-1970s would continue to find an audience among future generations. Now, it appears that is already happening.

It’s About TV posted that the MeTV network, which airs classic TV shows 24/7, now ranks 19th among all national cable networks. (source: Nielsen) Among the 25-54 demographic, MeTV attracts more viewers than CNN and 80 other cable outlets. 

Now, I suspect more of these viewers are closer to the ‘54’ side of that 25-54 range, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a growing number of 20- and 30-somethings have started to tune out the loud and coarse celebrations of what is wrong with the world, and are finding solace in a kinder spot on the television dial.

What’s significant about this is that 20- and 30 year-olds did not grow up with shows like Make Room for Daddy, The Donna Reed Show and Petticoat Junction, either in first-run or syndication. These viewers are encountering Leave it to Beaver, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, Adam-12, Hogan’s Heroes and Get Smart, among other MeTV offerings, for the first time.  And if the ratings are any indication, they like what they see. 

So why is this happening? I can think of three reasons.

1. Other TV continues to find new ways to suck.

We have more viewing choices than ever these days, and there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but so much of cable has become one big noisy reality show.

Bravo, one of the networks MeTV now bests in the ratings, used to be a haven for performing arts programs and independent films. Today it’s most popular offering is the “Real Housewives” franchise. At one time, TLC was an acronym for The Learning Channel, and described itself as “a place for learning minds.” More recently it has become home to I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Even the once-proud CNN has seen better days, as evidenced by the two weeks of coverage it devoted to the plane that disappeared over the Indian Ocean. The news is important, but wallowing in tragedy is not.

2. There’s a reason they’re called classics.

While nostalgia and childhood memories can enrich the viewing of a favorite old program, they are not essential.

For some of us these shows have been part of our lives for so long it’s hard to think of anyone having their first encounter with The Twilight Zone or The Brady Bunch. But why wouldn’t someone raised on Friends and Felicity be able to appreciate the brilliant writing of the former, or the simple pleasures of the latter?

The age of the material doesn’t matter, nor will the way our lifestyles have changed in the past five decades (hey, why don’t Greg and Marcia have cell phones?). Put a kid in front of a 3 Stooges short from 1935 and they will laugh (well, a boy will, anyway). Quality is quality. It’s the same reason my generation learned to revere Sinatra after growing up on Led Zeppelin (though we still like them too).

“Better or worse” comparisons are tricky without some qualifiers. Certainly today’s television is often more sophisticated, but it’s also often more cynical. Old situation comedies can be formulaic, but most of them provide a more optimistic view of our life and times. Is The Fugitive better than The Sopranos? Whatever your response, there’s no doubt that the plight of Dr. Richard Kimble is just as powerful today as it was 51 years ago. 

3. There’s always more great TV to discover

I know classic shows can still resonate with a modern audience, because thanks to networks like MeTV and Antenna and Cozi, I’m still discovering many of them myself. I have no personal history with shows like The Bold Ones or Wanted: Dead or Alive, but now they’re staples on my DVR.

Lately I’ve also been enjoying the horror anthologies Thriller and Night Gallery, despite their hit-and-miss nature. Haven’t been able to get into Bachelor Father, but Naked City is a remarkable urban crime drama, and Route 66 has a unique vibe all its own. The location shooting offers a fascinating window into America in the 1960s, just before the dramatic social changes that dominated the latter half of the decade. 

There was a time when I thought the Nick at Nite experiment of building a network around vintage television had come and gone for good. But now I am more confident that whatever the future holds for this medium, there may always be a place to watch Lucy sell Vitameatavegamin, to listen to the Monkees sing “Daydream Believer,” and to find out the results of the trial after Sgt. Joe Friday arrests another lawbreaker.

Now, let’s see if people still care about Honey Boo Boo in 50 years. 


  1. I'm never sure why people do what they do--but I know I watch MeTV (and the other diginets that offer classic TV programming) because of your #3. I actually like finding shows with slower rhythms, out-of-date references, and differing moral compasses. I find it's like stepping into a different culture, or even world sometimes. That's far more interesting and entertaining to me than...say CNN.

    1. I'm with you, Joanna. In fact I should have mentioned the pacing as yet another factor that separates the classics from the modern era, as well as the longer running times. Some of today's 60 minutes shows barely top 40 minutes of actual program.

    2. "Some of today's 60 minutes shows barely top 40 minutes of actual program" - nor would we want them to.

  2. No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but it's my understanding that MeTV is technically NOT a cable channel. I don't even get MeTV with DirecTV at the present time. In any case, I personally wish MeTV could show reruns of "Barnaby Jones" someday. After all, it was a Quinn Martin show, and other QM shows such as "Cannon" and "The Streets of San Francisco" are currently on MeTV's schedule. I know you haven't thought highly of "T.J. Hooker," Mr. Hofstede, but I'd rather watch that show instead of "The Fosters" any day!

    1. We may be at the point now where such classifications add more confusion than clarification. Technically it's a digital sub-channel, but that probably doesn't help. And between "Hooker" and "The Fosters," I'd take the first one as well.

  3. Thanks for the link, David! I think your three points of explanation are spot on - I agree with you and Joanna that so much of the appeal to the classics lies in the presentation to us of a world long since past. "Route 66"'s predecessor, "Naked City," gives us a wonderful glimpse of New York at the turn of the '50s, when midcentury modern begins to morph into '60s style.

    As to Christopher's point above, which is a good one, I suppose to each his own on how you'd classify MeTV, but it is true that the original source material - the article from TV News Check - categorized MeTV among "national cable networks."

    1. Thanks for mentioning the story on your blog - I always learn something with every visit.

  4. In the Seattle, Bellingham, Vancouver, area METV is a primary channel on KVOS.

  5. Mr. Hofstede, do you feel particularly sad that actresses Eileen Davidson and Lisa Rinna are appearing on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" these days? Keep in mind that Ms. Davidson won a Daytime Emmy earlier this year for her work on "Days of our Lives." I do have to admit that I have enjoyed listening to music David Foster produced in the '80s. (David is currently married to Yolanda Foster, one of the titular "housewives.")

  6. Mr. Hofstede, check out the following URL:

  7. You might not realize it, but I got into a couple of Westerns, a genre that, long before, I wanted nothing to do with (and I got through the full run of one of them, that being Wanted: Dead or Alive w/the great, late Steve McQueen [from the Special Edition all-in-one DVD which I have; I have one featurette left, four colorized episodes, and that St. Louis Bank Robbery film, but I'll get to those anytime; finished the series, though]).