Fourteen Ways of Looking at Late-Summer Reruns

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

–Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Wednesday, Aug. 26

First, because it is August, and because it is America, there are the prime-time reruns. Drew’s fridge breaks down. The Nanny doesn’t want to sign the prenuptial agreement. Dharma and Greg move in with Greg’s parents. On Chicago Hope , Shutt treats a teenager with stigmata. There is no joy in these reruns. They are not a secret pleasure. They are a slap in the face. They remind us not of childhood, but of last February [WABC, 7, 9 P.M., The Drew Carey Show .]

Thursday, Aug. 27

For children, reruns are the best education there is. Think of young Inuit children in the northern Yukon, gathering around the hearth, hearing again and again the legends of their ancestors–how the giant whale swallowed the sun, how the northern lights were formed. Now think of young Manhattan children gathering around the TV, watching again and again the legends of their ancestors: how Peter’s voice broke, how Lou got drunk and made a pass at Mary, how Latka became that suave guy, how Pinky Tuscadero’s song got stolen, how Bugs convinced Elmer that it was duck season, not rabbit season. They are learning the ways of our people. Little Ricky is born. Edith gets cancer. Chuckles the Clown dies. Cosmonauts visit Gilligan’s Island . [TBS, 22, 8 A.M., Gilligan’s Island . Today’s episode: Cosmonauts visit.]

Friday, Aug. 28

Each generation is defined not by its prime-time schedule, but by its reruns. The Brady Bunch nostalgia boom of a few years ago–the movies, the ‘zines, the astronomic lunch-box prices–was fueled not by the generation that watched the show during its original run, from 1969 to 1974, but by that generation’s younger sisters and brothers, who watched it in afternoon reruns, day after day after day, throughout the late 1970’s.

There is the television that you watch just because it is on, and the television you build your life around. (This is easier to do if you’re 10 years old.) Watching a show once a week is like belonging to the Army Reserves–you never forget it’s there, but it doesn’t really change your life. Watching a show every day is like boot camp. It defines you. It takes over your life. You dream about it. [Nickelodeon, 6, 2:30 A.M. to 5:30 A.M., six straight episodes of Happy Days .]

Saturday, Aug. 29

Reruns have become syndicated white noise, a constantly available source of situation and comedy, each indistinguishable from the others. Think back to your formative rerun experiences: kindergarten, Flintstones at lunch; fifth grade, Adam-12 after school; junior year, Hawaii Five-O on every night at 2.

Now reruns are just there. Turn on the TV at any time of day or night, and there’s a sitcom, one you like, one you’ve probably seen. You watch the same episode that you watched five years ago, that you watched 20 years ago. The years run together. You grow old and die. [WLIW, 21, 8 P.M., The Red Skelton Show .]

Sunday, Aug. 30

A true story: A 35-year-old commercial director and his 3-year-old daughter are driving through Connecticut in their Toyota minivan. No sound but the sound of the road, each of them alone with their thoughts. And then, from the back seat, a question. “Daddy, can you tell me the story of The Brady Bunch ?”

He tells her about the lovely lady, the man named Brady and their six children. He tells her the plot of every episode he can think of. He starts making some up.

She listens, rapt, for miles. [Nickelodeon, 6, 3 A.M., The Brady Bunch. Today’s episode: Mike’s boss gives the Bradys a pool table.]

Monday, Aug. 31

On this particular day in New York City, there are 102 different “off-network” programs–shows that were originally broadcast on a network, in prime time–available to you, the home viewer. Columbo is on four times. I Love Lucy is on four times. There are three Matlock s , three Ellen s, three Law & Order s. Two Living Single s. Two Kate & Allie s. Two Babylon Five s. Two Quincy, M.E. s.

And yet: no Hello, Larry . No Moonlighting . No Get Smart . No Barney Miller . No Bridget Loves Bernie . No Cosby Show . No Chico and the Man . No What’s Happening!! No Square Pegs . No Dragnet . No Hawaii Five-O . No Soap .

There are still blank channels on our cable boxes. Someday we shall not want. [A&E, 14, 2 P.M., Columbo .]

Tuesday, Sept. 1

There have been two big changes in the economics of syndication in the past 10 years. The first is technological. With the growth of cable, the market for off-network syndicated product exploded. Networks like Nickelodeon, Lifetime, A&E and TBS loaded their schedules with reruns, driving up syndication prices to the point where last year, syndication rights for Friends sold for $4 million an episode. This has had a number of residual effects. First of all, networks started to realize that the real money in television production was not in first-run, prime-time programming, but in syndication. But it was money that they couldn’t get their hands on. The Federal Communications Commission had a longstanding rule prohibiting networks from having a financial interest in shows that they produced. The thinking behind this rule was that if networks were both producing their own shows and programming their prime-time schedule, they would have a financial incentive to program their own shows (even if they bit) and a financial disincentive to buy shows from independent producers. Your basic anti-monopoly law.

But then three years ago, after intense lobbying by the networks, the F.C.C. changed the rule, and networks started producing their own shows, and exactly what everyone thought would happen, happened: For example, last season, NBC put Union Square , a really bad show that it had produced itself, between Friends and Seinfeld , who propped it up for the whole season. Or take Working , another bad show with lousy ratings–but since it’s an NBC-owned show, it’s about to premiere for its second season. If the network can manage to keep it afloat for four more years, Working will have reached the magic number of 100 episodes, which will mean that it can go into syndication and NBC can make a lot of money.

In other words, the economics of reruns has changed not only what you see at 4 in the afternoon and 3 in the morning; it’s changed what you see in prime time, too. [WNBC, 4, 8:30 P.M., Working .]

Wednesday, Sept. 2

It is a truism that the fragmentation of American television, via cable, has led to a fragmentation of America. Whereas once everyone watched Uncle Miltie and then guffawed about it down in shipping the next day, now Bill wants to talk about the documentary he saw on the Nature Channel, Sue saw Robin Byrd, and Dave watched a Braves game on TNT.

But what is perhaps less often noted, at least by grown-ups, is that the same thing is true for afternoon reruns, and thus for conversation in the school yard. Exhibit A: every available rerun on the TV schedule for New York City, past and present.

Sept. 2, 1968, at 6 P.M.: Sea Hunt .

Sept. 2, 1978, at 6 P.M.: The Brady Bunch and The Mod Squad .

Sept. 2, 1988, at 6 P.M.: T.J. Hooker , Gimme a Break! , Doctor Who , Three’s Company , Eight Is Enough and Alice .

Sept. 2, 1998, at 6 P.M.: The Simpsons , Married …With Children , Full House , Highway to Heaven , Kojak, Northern Exposure , The Odd Couple , Wings , 21 Jump Street , Ellen , Quantum Leap , Dallas , Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman , Growing Pains and Family Matters . [Disney Channel, 33, 6 P.M., Growing Pains .]

Thursday, Sept. 3

A conversation about reruns with Erin Smith, editor of the ‘zine Teenage Gang Debs . She was born in 1972.

“I think reruns were better when we were growing up, because they expected you to make a bit more of a stretch. Let’s say it’s 1980. Look at the lineup. Kids were expected to watch reruns from the 50’s and early 60’s. If you look at it today, they’re not expected to watch shows from the 60’s and 70’s. They’re watching Family Matters and Home Improvement and Roseanne . There’s no sense of history. I think it was good for me to be 7 or 8 and have to watch–all right, not have to , but to watch–stuff like Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show and even weirder stuff, like Topper and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir . It was kind of cool to have to do a little more work. My mom would talk to us about Laugh-in and Maude , and we were expected to know what she was talking about.

“Now everything’s everywhere. It’s just too easy. These kids who are growing up with cable and Nick at Nite–their perceptions are so different. I go on line now, and I read conversations among kids who are 10 and 11 and 12 and 13, and their interpretations of things are just really weird. Like there’s a big problem with kids watching reruns of the Wonder Years , because they don’t understand that it’s from the 80’s. They think it’s from the 40’s.

“And there was this other kid who posted that Scott Baio had been in a show before Charles in Charge . He had just found out, and he wanted to spread the word.” [Nickelodeon, 6, 9:30 P.M., The Wonder Years .]

Friday, Sept. 4

My Three Sons . Family Affair . Sanford and Son . The Flip Wilson Show . Hogan’s Heroes . Green Acres . Mannix . Hill Street Blues . Hogan’s Heroes . I Dream of Jeannie . St. Elsewhere . Gunsmoke . Rhoda . Rhoda . I Dream of Jeannie . I Dream of Jeannie . Family Affair . Family Affair . My Three Sons . My Three Sons . Petticoat Junction . Petticoat Junction . Burke’s Law . Hill Street Blues . Gunsmoke . Mannix . Hogan’s Heroes . Bosom Buddies . Leave It to Beaver . The Abbott and Costello Show . I Dream of Jeannie . Petticoat Junction . My Three Sons . Family Affair . Sanford and Son . The Flip Wilson Show . Hogan’s Heroes . Green Acres . Gunsmoke . And thus endeth another day of TV Land. [TV Land, 85, 4 P.M. , Mannix .]

Saturday, Sept. 5

Some cable ratings, courtesy of the Nielsen people, from an average day in early August:

The Bionic Woman on the Sci-Fi channel: watched by 153,000 households nationwide (out of 93 million). Thirtysomething on Lifetime: 179,000. Dallas on TNN: 234,000. Charlie’s Angels on TNT: 320,000. Northern Exposure on A&E: 380,000. Growing Pains on Disney: 620,000. I Love Lucy on Nickelodeon: 1,179,000. [Disney Channel, 33, 4:30 P.M. , Growing Pains .]

Sunday, Sept. 6

There is no syndication season. Year round, syndicators for major and independent studios schlump around the country like traveling salesmen, shilling their bag of shows. From their home offices, they track ratings and demographics for each station, and then convince the general manager to fill up his airwaves with their product.

The market, it is safe to say, varies. If you’re a station manager buying I Love Lucy for Kansas City, you’re paying about $100 to broadcast each episode. If you’re in L.A. or New York, vying for Friends, you’re offering $200,000 a show.

If you’re the traveling syndicator, the one thing you’ve got to understand is the concept of “resting” shows. The fact is, people get sick of anything, even M.A.S.H. If a show like M.A.S.H. has been playing at 5:30 P.M. in Cleveland for five years, its ratings have probably been slowly slipping as viewer burnout sets in. So the syndicator will suggest maybe “resting” M.A.S.H. for a couple of years, plugging in, say, T.J. Hooker in its place. A little while down the road, the notion is, absence will have made Cleveland’s heart grow fonder. The plots will have conflated in memory. The people will be ready again. [WNYW, 5, 12:30 A.M., M.A.S.H .]

Monday, Sept. 7

When a show goes into syndication while it is still in its original run, it has an effect on its prime-time life–although what effect isn’t always clear. Seinfeld didn’t become a No. 1 show until it went into syndication, but Home Improvement ‘s ratings suffered after it started playing every afternoon around the country.…

Audrey Steele, who buys advertising time on syndicated shows for corporate clients, explains the difference: “Kid-driven shows like Home Improvement can really be hurt by going into syndication, because kids don’t know the difference between original episodes and repeats. When a show is running Monday through Friday at an earlier hour, that decreases the audience of the once-a-week network run. The kids feel like they’ve seen enough Home Improvement already that week, and they don’t care that the prime-time episode is an original one …

“That tends to happen more with kid-driven shows, but it works all over. A good example is Frasier , which NBC is moving to Thursday nights this year to anchor their big night. There’s a lot of concern that that’s not going to work. Seinfeld was a fairly marginal show before it moved to Thursday, but Frasier is an older show, it’s been in syndication for two years, it’s been all over the place. So that may diminish the audience’s excitement for Frasier, and that may hurt Thursday night.” [WNYW, 5, 7:30 P.M., Home Improvement .]

Tuesday, Sept. 8

I was of three minds

About what to watch,

Like a TV

On which there are three simultaneous episodes of Saved by the Bell .

[WPIX, 11, TBS, 22, USA Network, 23, 5 P.M., Saved by the Bell .]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

by Peter Bogdanovich

This month marks the centenary of Preston Sturges’ birth; in other words, a time for merrymaking, since Sturges wrote and directed at least seven of the best talking comedies ever made in America. And he made those seven (plus a studio-truncated drama) all within the same four-year period, 1940-1944, a burst of creativity unparalleled in picture history. His fifth-in-a-row success was that wild 1942 satirical romantic comedy, starring Claudette Colbert at her most scintillating, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee, The Palm Beach Story [Saturday, Aug. 29, American Movie Channel, 54, 10:30 P.M., also available on videocassette] . This is the one where Colbert decides to leave her steadfast but struggling inventor-husband McCrea on the novel premise that an attractive woman can get a great deal more money on her own–for her husband’s inventions–rather than with her husband around. In rapid succession, while flat broke, she encounters: the Wienie King, a small man with a wad that could choke a horse that he peels off for her; the Ale and Quail Club, a drunken man’s duck-shooting party that proceeds to make her their mascot and shoot up the train they’re all on; and the richest man in America (Vallee’s one immemorial turn), who falls head-over-heels in love with her. And all that happens before they even get to Palm Beach.

Most appropriately, Sturges was the first person to win the first original screenplay Oscar for his first directing-writing job, 1940’s sardonic The Great McGinty . He used to write all his scripts by improvising them, acting them out for his secretary, who would take everything down in shorthand and type it up. Imagine the joy of being in that room! But this unique method not only gave his dialogue remarkable freshness and immediacy, but made it virtually actorproof, especially since Sturges was writing his scripts with very specific actors in mind for each role–hence the famous Sturges Stock Company, most of the same supporting actors in every picture–for whom he could tailor-make the words.

After four popular and critical successes in two years, Sturges must have been much encouraged, and had the confidence to let himself go, and The Palm Beach Story is perhaps his full-out wackiest comedy, probably also his sunniest, with an extraordinary certitude in its timing. The picture begins with a farcical chase sequence that is totally incomprehensible and never referred to until the very end of the movie, when it is called to mind in order to deliver the otherwise impossible happy ending. This, of course, is a wonderful Sturges trademark: the unlikely triumph of happiness against all odds and even all credulity. After all, it is a comedy.

Having had an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing–a great deal of time spent in France with his eccentric, artistic mother, and much love from his New York businessman father–Sturges’ mixture of sophisticated European objectivity with vividly American idiomatic energy creates a very special frisson not to be found in anyone else’s work (though something of the same combination gives different but complimentarily memorable results in the American pictures of Ernst Lubitsch).

A brilliant director of actors, Sturges never distracted with his setups, indeed was always in the right place with his camera, and paced his scenes perfectly. Most of all, he respected the integrity of actors’ performances and generally did long, continuous takes to preserve this. As Orson Welles used to say, shooting like that in talkies was what distinguished the men from the boys. In The Palm Beach Story , Sturges has a quartet of superb comic actors with some of his wittiest, most insouciant dialogue. You may wonder, where has the America gone which took Sturges to its heart?

As summer draws to a close, if you can’t get enough of 100-year-old Preston Sturges’ brand of comedy, rent any of the following and you won’t be sorry (all but one highly recommended here before): The Great McGinty , Christmas in July , (both 1940); The Lady Eve , Sullivan’s Travels (both 1941); The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek , Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944).