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It's Prime Time for '60s Music

February 21, 1989|STEVE WEINSTEIN

Even without Ed Sullivan, Motown's girl groups and a host of other '60s pop music stars long absent from the Billboard charts are hitting it big again in prime time.

No less than five current network television series employ snippets of legendary '60s songs to evoke, emote or otherwise fill time each week. A handful of others dabble in the music of the "Big Chill" generation.

"It's a trend like everything else," said Doug Frank, vice president of music at Warner Bros., who is responsible for securing the rights to songs used in ABC's "China Beach."

"Programming today is gearing itself toward a yuppie audience that grew up with those songs. They create a certain familiarity and nostalgia, taking you back to a certain time and place.

"Sixties music is popular right now and it will run the gamut--on television, in movies, in advertising--and eventually they'll move on to other things. Already I hear producers saying they're sick of it."

Maybe, but right now both CBS and ABC are banking on the notion that the TV audience is anything but sick of it. "China Beach" uses Diana Ross and the Supremes' "Reflections" as its theme song. "The Wonder Years" opts for the Joe Cocker cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" for its theme and, like "China Beach," uses the Supremes, Cream, the Doors, The Temptations and every other '60s group it can get its hands on to augment the emotional impact of each episode.

CBS' first-year series "Almost Grown," which features James Brown's "Think" over its opening credits, is a show built as much on music as on characters. And the network's most popular new show, "Murphy Brown," uses different Motown hits each week to help depict the antics of a 40-year-old TV reporter who, according to the program's executive producer, "would love to be reincarnated as the only white Vandella."

"Tour of Duty," "thirtysomething" and "Moonlighting" have all been a part of the musical nostalgia tour as well, and a host of advertisers--most notably the California Raisin Commission with Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"--have jumped on the '60s bandwagon to help pitch their products.

In fact, advertisers and television producers sometimes hit on the same song. The Temptations' "My Girl," for example, has popped up recently on both an episode of "China Beach" and as the centerpiece of an American Express commercial.

"The reason that this music is so prevalent is simply that the people who are creating the shows today are 35 to 40 and grew up on '60s music," said Joel Shukovsky, executive producer of "Murphy Brown," whose 40ish, Motown-loving wife, Diane English, created the series. "None of our friends are into heavy metal. I think you'll continue to see '60s music for a while, and then you'll start to see '70s songs as the younger producers come up."

"We've steadily moved through nostalgia," agreed John Wells, producer of "China Beach." "In the '70s, the nostalgia was for the '50s with 'Happy Days,' 'Laverne and Shirley,' and 'Grease' on Broadway. Now, I think we've moved forward into the next era of nostalgia, the '60s, with movies like 'The Big Chill' and 'Platoon' and all these television shows."

But renting their favorite songs doesn't come cheap. Ever since "Miami Vice" began using rock music as a supplement to each episode in 1984, licensing costs have been escalating fast.

Shukovsky said that his series struck a bulk deal with Motown to use any of a long list of old hits for between $3,500 to $7,000 a pop.

Warner Bros.' Frank said that "China Beach," the story of a group of women at a rest-and-relaxation outpost for soldiers in Vietnam, spends up to $30,000 an episode for the rights to old recordings.

Frank said it is conceivable that as the increasing demand for hit songs drives the prices up, television shows might have to drop the idea entirely. Already, he said, some programs are cutting costs by buying cheaper sound-a-like recordings.

For now, however, the effect of the song seems to be worth the cost. No producer who uses '60s music in his television show will admit to worrying that the flood of such music in movies, TV and advertisements has already rendered the practice just another Hollywood cliche. And even though the same song might be used in a commercial or on a rival show, all of the producers interviewed for this story denied paying attention to their competition.

"We don't concern ourselves with the fact that someone else may have used a particular song," said Steve Miner, supervising producer for "The Wonder Years." "If someone uses our theme song to sell garbage bags, then we might have to consider rethinking it. We might not be able to live with that kind of association. But we really have to be more concerned with how a song works for a scene than whether someone is using it to sell deodorant."

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