Swept into the TV past nostalgia Vying for advertising dollars,networks try to boost ratings with a walk down memory lane

October 30, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The November "sweeps" ratings period starts today. And that means it's a time of many happy returns in Television Land.

Reunion shows and retrospectives -- along with their inverse image, the murder melodrama (see story below) -- have become a recent staple of ratings periods, and the trend kicks in again on Sunday night.

In what now rates full-blown miniseries packaging from NBC, Kenny Rogers is back in the Old West for the fourth time in "The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw." A week from Sunday (Nov. 10) on ABC, it's "The Return of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables" with Robert Stack. Later in the month, James Arness saddles up again on CBS as Matt Dillon for "Gunsmoke III" (the show was bumped from the lineup last Sunday by game seven of the World Series).

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, the reunion business gets really serious with a "CBS Classic Weekend." That Saturday night, it's "The 20th Anniversary of the Bob Newhart Show." On Sunday, we return to the 1960s for "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show II." And the following night we drop by the '70s for "Memories of M*A*S*H."

The concepts here are not all alike, of course. Some shows reprise old roles with new story lines, like "Gunsmoke III," while anniversary shows -- like Newhart's -- are retrospectives.

And the programs vary widely in quality. "The Gambler Returns" is one shuffle of the deck too many. "Gunsmoke III," on the other hand, is a good, hard ride through the West of myth, symbol and shared memory.

But despite those differences, the hoped-for hook is the same -- nostalgia.

Why so much nostalgia during sweeps?

The easy answer is that such programming tends to rank high in the ratings. Last year's anniversary of "All in the Family," for example, was among the highest rated shows of the entire year. It did so well that CBS last summer took the unprecedented step of putting reruns of "All in the Family" on in prime time, and they finished in the top 10 each week. The Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Sullivan retrospectives, both of which aired last spring, helped lift CBS to a surprise sweeps win.

Since ratings are most important during sweeps months -- when future advertising rates are determined -- programmers obviously overload their schedules with ratings-getters during those periods. But nostalgia hasn't been limited to sweeps periods. In recent weeks, for example, we had another bad dream about Jeannie, commuted back to New Rochelle with Dick Van Dyke, and were invited to "Dynasty, the Reunion," with all those lovely, lovely Carringtons.

Those programming choices reflect the same principle that governs ratings periods: When the going gets competitive, go with nostalgia. "I Still Dream of Jeannie" and "Dynasty" were an attempt to counter baseball playoff games. "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which Nickelodeon added to its prime-time schedule this fall, was an effort to keep baby boomers in Cable Land as the broadcast networks launched their new seasons.

Though easy to recognize, the trend is harder to explain, with a mosaic of different reasons responsible for its success.

"There's just a good feeling to going back and seeing something you loved 30 years ago," Van Dyke said this summer after a press conference to promote the Nickelodeon revival of his show.

"The good feeling involves more than just the show," Sid Caesar said in an interview last year. The comedian, whose "Your Show of Shows" is still the paradigm of TV comedy, explained that the warm feeling comes from remembering when you sat "with your parents in your living room watching it the first time and feeling safe and happy."

Another explanation is that the images and memories from such TV shows are something we share with millions of other Americans; the pleasant feeling we experience is one of community, pop culture scholars tell us. The need for this feeling of community, they add, becomes more and more intense as we discover that we have fewer and fewer shared symbols as a nation.

The thought that more of us share warm feelings about Hawkeye Pierce or Matt Dillon than we do about Thomas Jefferson might be scary to some. But that's life in a postmodern culture where images of the historical past are overtaken by those of the TV present. And that past is going to be a big part of our TV future for the next 30 days.

A month of murder, too

Nostalgia isn't the only trend in sweeps programming. The other staple is murder -- especially within families. It's the underbelly of the happy sitcom families we see each week, appealing to audience's fascination with the dark side of human behavior.

The trend is efficiently summarized in the title of an ABC film starring Judith Light, which is scheduled to air Nov. 10: "Wife, Mother, Murderer."

Other upcoming murder "highlights" include:

*"False Arrest" (Sunday, ABC) with Donna Mills accused of murdering the business partner of her husband. Robert Wagner co-stars.

*"My Son Johnny" (Nov. 12, CBS) starring Rick Schroder, Corin Nemec and Michele Lee in a docudrama about brother killing brother.

*"In a Child's Name" (Nov. 17 and 19, CBS) stars Valerie Bertinelli in a miniseries based on Peter Maas' best seller about a woman who fights for custody of her murdered sister's child.

*"Deadly Medicine" (Nov. 11, NBC) with Veronica Hamel and Susan Ruttan in a story of a pediatrician who finds out her nurse is a murderer.

*"The Woman Who Sinned" (Nov. 17, ABC) features Susan Lucci as a woman whose extramarital affair results in her being accused of her best friend's murder.

It has nothing to do with murder, but the month's other programming highlight features one of TV's most talk-about women: Roseanne Arnold stars in "Backfield in Motion" (Nov. 13 on ABC), a comedy about a mothers-and-sons football game.

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