From Mav: So we had a topic suggested by a listener, specifically Maximilian, who wrote our theme song (and was on our music of your youth episode). By the way, if it isn’t obvious, you can totally suggest topics for us to use. Anyway, Max requested we do an episode talking about the recent trend of rebooting existing media franchises. It seems like there is a near constant stream of these lately. This year alone we have Magnum PI, Charmed, and Sabrina. And last year we had One Day at a Time, Lost in Space, Dynasty, MacGyver, and Duck Tales. And then, on top of that, we have all the shows that have revivals in the original continuity years after off the air like Will and Grace, Roseanne/The Connors, That’s So Raven, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Murphy Brown. And that’s not to mention TV shows that become movies(Baywatch, and CHiPs) or movies that become TV shows(Training Day, and Lethal Weapon).
But is this really a new thing? It’s obviously not. There’s a long history of moving adaptations from one medium to another. In particular, MASH comes to mind as a series based on a film (based on a book) that became wildly successful in its TV adaptation. And then, of course the reboot of Battlestar Galactica was leaps and bounds more popular than the original. And, while the original Doctor Who was certainly popular in Britain, it certainly wasn’t the worldwide success that it would become with the 2005 revival.
But it does feel like there’s even more of it these days.
A lot of the reason here, I think, goes back to our nostalgia show. But really, it’s more like the risk aversion that goes with the business end of production in the market. TV shows are expensive… and furthermore, there’s a lot more network competition than there used to be. Once upon a time, there were only 21 hours worth of prime time television to fill. In the days of three (or even four) primary television networks, taking chances was relatively lucrative. How do you think Manimal ever got on the air in the first place? Since TV viewers didn’t have many options, there was always the possibility that people might watch your show because there was nothing else on. After all, what the fuck are they supposed to do, go outside?
Things are different now. With far more viable networks on television AND the addition of streaming services, it’s simply possible to have a lot more television now than it used to be. And part of this is a good thing. In the 1950s, all TV characters were cowboys. Back in those 21 hour television days, there was a lot of “see what works and then do more” so you had an era where half of the shows on TV were westerns… followed by an era where half of the shows on TV were cop shows… then hospital shows… then lawyer shows. You get the idea. If something was working, then the networks gave us more of it… until we hated it and then they moved to the next thing. And we still do this. Right now, we use superhero shows. And vampires/witches.
At least in theory, more networks should fix that problem. And for a while, they definitely tried to. One of my favorite books, Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised speaks to the ways in which the TV landscape started changing in the 90s, in large part due to original programming being offered by cable channels that weren’t subject to FCC regulation and commercial interruption. This is the emerging age of everything from Sex and the City, to Sopranos to The Wire and eventually got us to stuff like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. The prestige format of cable TV programming thus forced the networks to do their best to keep up. They largely failed, but it did at least drive them to try.
We’re in a different space now. With literally thousands of hours of TV to fill per week, it’s now way harder to find an audience. The good side is you can make a niche TV show. Things like Atlanta, GLOW and Transamerica could never have existed in a three network world. They don’t have the mass appeal to justify literally taking up 5% of the available programming time. Now they don’t have to. But the problem is with this many options, it’s hard for a show to establish itself outside of its very narrow target group. There’s so much TV, so no one can watch everything.
But TV is still a business. So what’s the solution? Give people what they want. Give them something you know has a built-in audience… or at least something that you think has a built-in audience. Innovation is hard. People don’t like to take risks, because if the audience doesn’t give it a chance, you’ve wasted a lot money. After all, if there was any justice in this world, Cop Rock would still be on the air. But it’s far easier to rehash a concept that you know can work than to try something new. And if you think the audience is already there, well, you might as well try to make a series out of Lost In Space, right?
And while we’re at it, toss in another few superhero shows… Inhumans? Sure! And maybe make a 47th Transformers movie. And if it starts doing poorly, fuck it… we’ll just reboot it and try it again. And honestly, it kind of works. Most of the reboot shows actually work out pretty well. Because, as we pointed out on the earlier episode, nostalgia sells pretty well right now. It appears to be our new version of the western. There’s probably a good reason for this. Mass media is usually about helping to make sense of our current cultural moment. A lot of the one we’re in right now is a response to anxiety about politics,
The problem with this is a lack of innovation. Reboots can only last for so long because sooner or later we’ll run out of things to be nostalgic about. We need new content now, if only so we have something to reboot in ten to twenty years.
Or at least that’s my going theory. What’s yours? Do you think reboots work? Why or why not? What makes one good or bad? And what does our obsession with (or hatred of) them say about our current culture?