Every year, when the five big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC) announce their upcoming fall schedules, certain themes emerge. One year, there were a bunch of Seinfeld ripoffs about witty single people living in New York City. Another year, a bunch of shows aimed to rip off one of those earlier ripoffs — Friends. Two years ago, there were three separate shows about time travel, only one of which (NBC’s Timeless) made it to this season, and still lives in “will it be renewed?” limbo.
But in 2018, the theme is abundantly clear. You don’t have to go digging for it. What’s old is newish again, and we’re living in the age of TV revivals, reboots, and remakes.
Consider 2018’s fall schedule, which will feature CBS’s revival of Murphy Brown (with much of the original cast); CBS’s remake of Magnum P.I. (now sans mustache); Fox’s revival of Last Man Standing (after just one year off the air); The CW’s latest Vampire Diaries spinoff, Legacies; and The CW’s remake of Charmed. And that’s to say nothing of preexisting revivals and remakes — like ABC’s Roseanne, NBC’s Will and Grace, and Netflix’s Lost in Space — or remakes arriving at midseason, like The CW’s Roswell, or projects spun off from other media entirely, like YouTube’s Karate Kid sequel, Cobra Kai, or HBO’s ordered-to-pilot Watchmen series.
Look beyond the remakes, reboots, and revivals that are already announced, and the floodgates are right there, ready to burst open. If even a couple of the above shows are as successful as, say, Will & Grace, which has been a solid, if unexceptional, performer for NBC, you’re going to see more and more of these sorts of projects take over your TV screen. The Office? The West Wing? 24? All have been bandied about and rumored and teased.
But why so many remakes? And why now? The answer has two words: peak TV.
Be honest: When’s the last time you thought about Murphy Brown? Unless you spend as much time watching the Emmy Award ceremonies of the late ’80s and early ’90s as I do, I’m guessing it’s been a while. The show, burdened with references that were witty and contemporary when it aired but feel dated now, has mostly left the syndicated rerun circuit, with even its stop on Nick at Nite being relatively brief. (It ran there from 2005 to 2007. In comparison, its rough contemporary The Nanny ran from 2009 to 2013.)
But when I say “Murphy Brown,” if you were at all cognizant of the pop culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s — or if you’ve heard of, say, the series’ squabble with then-Vice President Dan Quayle — you can at least conjure an image of Candice Bergen saying something cutting. This is what CBS is counting on in reviving the show. You might not tune in because you’re a Murphy Brown superfan, or even because you have direct memories of having watched it in the first place. But you might tune in because of curiosity.
When you consider that the audience that watches TV live and is thus still incredibly attractive to advertisers (because they can’t skip commercials by hitting a fast-forward button or pay for a “commercial free” streaming tier) is getting older, then the rush to rummage in the back of a network’s pantry to pull out older known quantities makes even more sense.
But it’s that initial response — “Yeah, I’ve heard of Murphy Brown” — that is driving a lot of this. In a world where more than 500 scripted TV shows will likely air in primetime across broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms this year (and that’s before you count the number of unscripted shows, shows that air during the day or in late night, and everything else that could conceivably be called “television”), name-brand recognition is king.
This has led to what one veteran showrunner described to me as “the dreaded IP,” meaning “intellectual property.” For major studios with big libraries — like Warner Bros., say, the home of Murphy Brown and Watchmen — raiding those libraries to figure out what projects will still have clout if their name is plastered on billboards everywhere is a great way to sell a TV show.
For a network like CBS, much of the marketing on Murphy Brown will take care of itself. Yes, they’ll have to invest in billboards and bus-side ads and the like, but Murphy Brown is far more likely to stick in the memory than New Crime Drama X. The marketing lift, while not nonexistent, is lighter.
Yes, this trend of more remakes, revivals, and reboots has been building since at least the mid-2000s. Some of the most beloved shows of this decade have been TV spins on the movie Fargo or the Hannibal Lecter character, and when you broaden this concept to include adaptations of novels and comics, you can include the last two series to win the Emmy for Best Drama Series — Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale — and arguably the biggest show of the decade, The Walking Dead.
This fall feels like a new high-water mark for these sorts of projects. There are so many (and so many more if you include adaptations of other works) that if even a handful of them succeed, it might start to feel like the only thing on TV is updates of old TV shows, mixed with occasional adaptations of genre novels and comics.
But there’s another old rule in television: Whenever anything reaches such a huge saturation point as this, it’s inevitably going to come crumbling down. So who’s positioned well to win the big revival/remake wars of fall 2018?
The easy money before CBS announced its fall schedule was that the network would use the revival to shore up its flagging Monday night comedy lineup, which fell to third place, such a no-no for the dominant network that CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl actually called it out as such in a press conference announcing the fall schedule. In fact, the users at Spotted Ratings, a TV ratings news site, held a contest to see who could most accurately predict where Murphy would end up, and nearly everybody had it somewhere on Mondays.
Instead, the network placed it on Thursdays, and not even anchoring an hour (meaning that it would air at 8 pm Eastern, 9 pm, or 10 pm). No, it was placed at 9:30 pm Eastern time, behind The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, and Mom. Taking into account how Will & Grace and especially Roseanne had reversed the fortunes of their networks on flagging nights, CBS’s decision seemed all the more curious.
But consider how Will & Grace and Roseanne have performed since their debuts and the decision seems clearer. Both shows have lost substantial portions of their audience, and while Roseanne will ultimately end up the highest-rated show of the 2017-’18 TV season overall, its numbers are boosted heavily by its early, more watched episodes. In recent weeks, it’s actually fallen behind CBS’s NCIS in certain key statistics.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Neither of these shows is in any danger. They’re still the biggest comedies on their respective networks — easily so. But Will & Grace is no megahit, and if Roseanne’s ratings trends continue into its second season, it won’t be either. Both shows would be solid performers, but far from sensations.
CBS, then, is treating Murphy Brown like both the return of a beloved series — in that it’s holding down one corner of the network’s biggest comedy lineup — and like a new show that needs to be nurtured. Kahl even told reporters he doesn’t want to take the show being a hit for granted. Imagine that the show is called, say, FYI (after the TV news program where Murphy works), and it’s much easier to see why it would air after Mom, which also boasts socially engaged storytelling anchored by women and an acting legend (Allison Janney) in one of its central roles.
The more you look at the way networks are using revivals this fall, the more it seems like they’re being cautious to a fault. Last Man Standing will be right back on Fridays — a tacit acknowledgment that it’s unlikely to improve all that much on the numbers that got it canceled on ABC. Charmed will air with The CW’s Supergirl, one of the network’s stronger performers and another genre show centered on a woman. Only Magnum, asked to compete in a tough Monday night time slot without much lead-in support, seems like it’s being thrown to the wolves.
Time will tell if reboot and revival fever sweeps television even more than it already has. If this fall’s crop of old faces succeeds, it will be just as much due to savvy scheduling as anything else. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who you are nearly as much as it does the neighborhood you live in.