Don't touch that dial: Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Judy Garland are back on TV

Legendary TV sitcoms, such as "I Love Lucy," "MASH" and "Friends," will likely run as long as there are screens.

But thousands of hours of variety and talk shows enjoyed by millions of viewers over the first 40 years of TV history have been rarely seen since they originally aired. But now, thanks to the emergence of classic diginets, that's about to change.

Starting Monday, Sony Pictures Television Networks' GetTV service will be airing a full night of vintage variety programs every week, featuring "The Judy Garland Show," which ran on CBS in the 1963-64 TV season, and episodes of "The Merv Griffin Show" from the 1960s and '70s. A third hour will feature network musical variety specials, many of which haven't been seen since they were first broadcast.

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Tribune Broadcasting's Antenna TV will launch Jan. 1, a retro attack in the late-night wars with encore airings of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." While Carson clip shows have run in syndication, Antenna TV will present original full-length episodes, including the host's topical monologues and guest interviews. Many are airing for the first time since they were seen on NBC, where Carson ruled for 30 years.

GetTV and Antenna TV are available across much of the country on the additional over-the-air channels stations received when they converted to digital high-definition signals in 2009. Such networks have become the home for pre-1970 films, and many TV series and game shows from the 1950s, '60s and '70s, with core fans that are no longer in the younger demographic groups advertisers want to reach.

While the most popular classic TV network, Weigel Broadcasting's MeTV, gets better ratings than many cable channels, the services largely depend on direct response advertising and don't have to chase younger viewers. It gives the diginets (services for multicast channels) the freedom to offer an affectionate and respectful platform for shows that would otherwise not be viable on commercial television.

Last year, the guilds representing actors, writers and directors negotiated a lower residual rate for the diginets, making it more economically feasible to put more vintage shows back on the air. The rate is a based on a percentage of the license fees paid for the show.

"The unions have been terrific in helping us," said Paul Brownstein, president of Paul Brownstein Productions, which has long specialized in acquiring the rights for classic variety programs. "A lot of these shows are owned by the family of the stars, and they are not getting rich from huge license fees."

Brownstein's company will be mining the vaults of variety show producers and stars for GetTV's weekly offerings. "Nobody in a 500-channel universe respected this genre enough to give it a home," he said. "One night in prime time is still more than we've ever received."

Even with the new residuals deal, getting the music rights and waivers from other guilds involved with the shows has been a labor-intensive process.

Sean Compton, president of strategic programming and acquisition for Tribune Broadcasting, said the company worked with the Carson estate nearly every day for six months for the necessary clearances to make it economically feasible to put the old "Tonight" shows back on TV.

The result for viewers is the chance to experience an era of television that has almost been forgotten.

"The Judy Garland Show" was a high-profile failure in its time, canceled by CBS after a single season that saw several executive producer and format changes. The program evolved from a musical variety vehicle with sketches and host-shtick, which many critics at the time believed was ill-suited for a star of Garland's stature, to an hour of her performing in a concert-like setting.

Jeff Meier, senior vice president of programming for GetTV, likes the historic synergy of having the show on a network based on the Culver City studio lot where Garland made many of her MGM films.

"Goose bumps go through me when I think of that," he said.

GetTV has picked up 50 of Griffin's programs from Reelin' in the Years Productions, which licenses the show for the estate of the late host and game show impresario. Meier believes Griffin's affection for old Hollywood — he often booked veteran stars who reflected on their careers — is a good fit for his network, which draws much of its programming from the Columbia Pictures film library.

But Griffin's show was surprisingly substantive as well, giving platforms to politicians (Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon) and civil rights leaders (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dick Gregory) during the 1960s. There is also an unpredictability rarely seen in current talk shows. In a 1965 episode, artist Andy Warhol gives one-word answers in his interview.

Antenna TV plans to get even deeper into the Carson library of 4,000 shows, presenting a different episode every night and even syncing them up to holidays and landmark events.

"The night after the Academy Awards, we'll show the episode that ran the night after Johnny hosted them back in the early 1980s," Compton said.

On Christmas, he adds, viewers can expect to see Jimmy Stewart reminisce to Carson about the making of "It's a Wonderful Life."

Compton said that he has screened thousands of episodes and that he believes Carson's topical gags about Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan still hold up. He is vetting the episodes for guests (Bill Cosby, for example) and references that might make viewers uncomfortable today. But the reason to watch, he believes, is the chance to see the King of Late Night in real time again.

"Johnny tucked you in every night, whether you were a second-shifter coming home late or you stayed up for the late evening news and went to bed after the monologue," Compton said. "I don't think you can compare anything in the history of television to it."

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

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