No one calls them reruns anymore. Thanks to Nick at Nite, the prime-time and overnight cable network, classic TV series from the beatnik era to the bell-bottom period have become cool again.
This week the channel with a nostalgic sensibility celebrates its 10th anniversary, airing one episode of every show ever aired on Nick at Nite. (The homage runs Monday through Friday from 8 p.m. till midnight. Check listings for the times of your fave.) This week the network adds two other pop hits to its lineup: "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "The Munsters."
With marathons, theme nights and perky promotions, Nick at Nite has entrenched itself firmly into the viewing habits of baby boomers and their offspring.
Those viewing habits were in evidence early on in the O.J. Simpson double-homicide trial, when a key prosecution witness cited the Nick at Nite schedule in remembering the time he found Nicole Brown Simpson's bloody-pawed Akita dog in their Brentwood neighborhood.
Nonetheless, Nick at Nite prides itself on ignoring the trial.
"We're the only one--or one of the only--networks that's 100% O.J.-free," declares Nick at Nite general manager Rich Cronin from his New York office. "We never even mention O.J. There's something to that, a chance to get away from the crazy world."
And getting away from the crazy--and real--world is as good a reason as any to tune into Nick at Nite and its classic, sometimes campy, entertainment. Nick's studies show the channel as among the seven to 10 most often-watched cable channels. That's a lot of people tuning into shows that originally aired as long as 35 years ago.
Ten years ago, old TV shows weren't promoted on the tube at all. They either sat on the shelves or aired in syndication, rarely to fanfare. As reruns, they were often a viewer's last resort. But still they were a known quantity.
One thing Nickelodeon knew was children's programming. Ten years ago, the channel spent five years creating a competitive image for itself--against the Disney Channel--as the quirkier daytime children's channel. Nickelodeon at that time shared its cable transponder with A&E, which took over the transmission after 8 p.m.
But when both channels expanded to 24 hours, Nick execs couldn't quite decide how to fill the newly acquired 14 hours. "It didn't make sense to have a full-time children's channel," Cronin says. "We looked at all kinds of possibilities, looking for something that would appeal to adults without alienating kids."
Turning Nick into a comedy channel was considered--"long before Comedy Central," says Cronin--as was a family film channel. Execs even thought about airing Nickelodeon shows through the night.
But eventually Nick looked to radio as its model. "We decided we wanted to be the oldies of television," Cronin explains. "After all, the people who started MTV [part of the same company, Viacom, that owns Nickelodeon and VH1] were radio people." They decided against oldies music television and turned to classic TV shows.
It was a perfect match. "The beauty of it was, back then the censors were so much tougher, shows were more wholesome so kids could watch, with appeal to adults because they'd grown up with the shows and had strong emotional bonds to them," Cronin says.
The other beauty was that many older TV shows were undervalued, not yet appreciated as classics or cultural icons. "The general public seems to think movies had real art and value, but classic TV was considered just reruns and didn't have the value or was as important to culture," Cronin says. "But the people who started Nick at Nite, and those here today, feel that the public loves classic TV."
Nick at Nite has a big advantage over broadcast television because the channel can "pick and choose the best TV shows throughout TV history," says Cronin. "We don't have to take chances. We know 'I Love Lucy,' we love 'I Love Lucy,' so we put it on."
And the numbers are impressive. During its first decade, Nick at Nite's audience experienced steady growth. According to Nick stats, since last year alone, its viewers have increased by 37%, jumping from 470,000 to 697,000 homes on the average per night. The overnight cable station's audience is broad--attracting children in the earlier hours of prime time and older adults throughout the evening and overnight. In fact, the only group who doesn't tune into Nick at Nite are 13- to 17-year-olds, who are probably tuned to Nick's sister channel MTV.
"We have a brand of personality, a certain type of show as they channel surf," Cronin says. "They know what they're gonna get when they land on us: classic TV that's wholesome and quirky. It's a complicated scary world, and we're a nice safe haven of wholesome classic TV shows that are light entertainment and an escape from scariness."
And good writing. (Cronin is fond of pointing out that Nick at Nite shows have won a total of 94 Emmy awards on their original networks.)