Nick at Nite wins fans by poking fun at TV

August 16, 1991|By Mark S. Del Vecchio | Mark S. Del Vecchio,The Hartford Courant

Uncle Charley. Maynard G. Krebs. Maxwell Smart.

You know 'em. You love 'em. You can live without 'em.

But Nick at Nite asks: Why would you want to?

Six years ago, Nick at Nite introduced an irreverent brand of rerun television that has baby boomers rocking to a retro beat.

Now reaching 55.2 million cable subscribers nationwide, the 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. network is making the old new again through clever packaging and outrageous and irrepressible advertising.

This network is making friends and gaining viewers mainly by making big fun of the boob tube.

Take, for example, the promotional campaign for "The Donna Reed Show," the exploits of the world's ultimate housewife, who finished her prime-time run 26 years ago.

Nick at Nite's weeklong marathon of episodes from 1958 to 1966 was billed as "The Donna-thon: Seven Days to Tidy the World."

Nick at Nite is dishing out apple-pie slices of American life in the 1950s and '60s to viewers in the 1990s who may pine for the days when Donna Reed could solve all the family's problems and Uncle Charley always had dinner on the table for Fred MacMurray's three sons.

The network, along with MTV and VH-1, is part of MTV Networks, a division of Viacom. In 1985 it premiered as an evening companion to Nickelodeon, an award-winning cable channel devoted to children's television.

Rich Cronin, Nick at Nite's senior director of marketing, says the nighttime network's prime audience is between ages 25 and 49 -- members of a generation who grew up with television as a major form of entertainment.

They are viewers who also are fluent in the language of television; they know Tabitha is the daughter of Samantha and Darren Stephens on "Bewitched" and likely can recite the words to the theme song of "The Flintstones."

"I think you've got so many people moving around the country a lot so that television becomes the similar experience," Mr. Cronin says. "It is no longer in what part of the country you grew up or where you went to high school -- it's the television shows that were on when you were a kid.

"You can grow up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Manhattan -- but you still know the words to the 'Mr. Ed' theme," he says.

Nick at Nite's success is part of a wave of television nostalgia that is crashing into living rooms, onto stages and even back into prime-time prominence. CBS has scored a ratings success by rerunning the original episodes of the groundbreaking social satire "All in the Family" during Sunday prime time. In Chicago, fans of "The Brady Bunch" are flocking to see line-for-line stage productions of the original episodes of the popular family series.

But TV Land, as Nick at Nite likes to refer to its broadcast world, is in many ways bucking another big trend -- realistic television shows that pump blood and guts and no small amount of sex into American living rooms.

Where other channels may be awash with real crime dramas and tell-all tabloids, viewers can turn away from the gore as they turn the clock back with Nick at Nite.

"Part of our success is that we have good family shows that are completely free of sex and violence that is on network television," Cronin says. "I think people see it as an escape. The world is a scary place."

That is Nick at Nite's quest and its tagline: "Better living through television."

Here are some examples of the special features the network has presented in recent months:

"Maximum Smart" -- Kicked off the addition of "Get Smart" to Nick at Nite's prime-time lineup with a weeklong marathon of episodes packaged for maximum attention. Each night had a theme. "Maximum Gadgetry," for example, was an evening of episodes that featured the spy gimmicks that made Maxwell Smart famous, including his shoe phone and the frustrating Cone of Silence.

"The Bub-Uncle Charley Guide" -- Designed to help viewers tell the difference between the early version of "My Three Sons," which ran on ABC and featured William Frawley as the boys' grandfather, and the later CBS version with William Demarest as Uncle Charley.

"The Evil Twins" -- A night of episodes from classic television featuring the struggle between Samantha Stephens, the lovable witch of "Bewitched," and her evil twin cousin, Serena (both played by Elizabeth Montgomery). Episodes of "The Patty Duke Show," with identical cousins Patty and Cathy Lane, also were shown.

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