Moviegoers are being deluged this summer with blockbuster sequels, churned out to capitalize on ready-made audiences. Come September, they'll see much the same phenomenon on their TV screens, and for much the same reason.
Three popular television series owned by MCA-TV will be revived for national syndication this fall: "Lassie," "Dragnet" and "Adam-12." MCA-TV has also given the nod of approval to a second-season renewal of "The Munsters Today."
ABC, meanwhile, is reviving "Kojak" with Telly Savalas for its "Mystery Movie" series, which already sports Peter Falk in new "Columbo" episodes. The network has also ordered 16 new episodes of "Mission: Impossible." And Paramount will beam a third year of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" into syndication.
"It's a fickle audience out there," said Arthur Annecharico, executive producer of "Dragnet," "Adam-12" and "The Munsters Today." "The networks are pulling shows left and right and everybody is scrambling. Television is changing dramatically, and we feel there are people who want to rely on certain things they're familiar with."
"This is an uncanny time, when people are looking backward to go forward," said Al Burton, "Lassie" executive producer. "There's a thinness to culture today that may demand we go back to another time to find who we are. There is a texture that existed with 'Lassie' that is not on TV today. If it was simplistic, I forgive it, because it was also human."
Todd Gitlin, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and author of "Inside Prime Time," concedes that many people yearn for a simpler time. But he contends that dredging up television programming long ago laid to rest is primarily a marketing ploy.
"There's a cyclical dearth of imagination in television," he said. "Since success is so uncertain, (television executives) are always looking for prefab hand-me-downs. Sometimes they get them from pop movies, sometimes from big television successes of the past. Essentially, they're trying to win the baby-boom generation back to television by offering them golden oldies of the '50s and '60s."
"In our business, nothing is an original idea," countered MCA-TV president Shelly Schwab. "It's a play off something that's already been done. The reason shows like 'Lassie,' 'Dragnet' and 'Adam-12' will make it: They're classics. Not only did they have large audiences, they had loyal and passionate audiences."
"Television is a medium of safety and security," observed Gary Goldberg, "Family Ties" producer and creator. "There's a level some of the older shows fall into where the ritual aspect of watching becomes more important than the creative element. If a show is familiar and produces a comfort zone that people like, it doesn't really matter from a critical standpoint if the show is any good or not."
The first television classic to be transformed into a new series was "Leave It to Beaver." In March, 1983, viewers were introduced to a 33-year-old Beaver Cleaver, divorced and out of work, in the TV movie "Still the Beaver." Viewer interest soon led to a series, produced by MCA-TV for The Disney Channel in 1985.
Featuring many original cast members--including Jerry Mathers as Beaver, Tony Dow as Wally Cleaver and Ken Osmond as Eddie Haskell--the show was renamed "The New Leave It to Beaver" in 1986 and switched to cable superstation TBS, where it currently enjoys moderate success.
Paramount followed in 1987 by rallying perhaps the most devoted of all television audiences, the Trekkies. With more than 400 fan clubs nationwide, they helped "Star Trek: The Next Generation" go in its premiere season where no first-run syndicated series had gone before. Aided by critical praise and strong writing, the show was the top-rated first-run syndicated series among men and women ages 18 to 34, and garnered three Emmys and a Peabody Award.
The difficulty that producers face is trying to update a show while retaining the magic generated by the original.
Last year, "Mission: Impossible" brought back Lalo Schifrin's pulsing musical theme and Peter Graves as the relentless IMF team leader Jim Phelps. But instead of receiving his instructions from a self-destructing reel-to-reel audio tape, this time around Graves drew his mission assignments from a specially encoded video disc.
"I certainly think when we premiered this show we got a tune-in from people who used to watch it," executive producer Jeff Hayes said. The show was first conceived as a two-hour television movie last year, then rushed into production as a series after the writers' strike left a big hole in ABC's prime-time schedule. "We continued to get ratings because we included computers and holograms and things to make the sting work that weren't around 20 years ago. We did one story about a mission involving computer viruses infecting nuclear submarines.