Moviegoers are being deluged this summer with blockbuster sequels, churned out to capitalize on ready-made audiences. Come September, they'll see much the same phenomenon on their TV screens, and for much the same reason.
Three popular television series owned by MCA-TV will be revived for national syndication this fall: "Lassie," "Dragnet" and "Adam-12." MCA-TV has also given the nod of approval to a second-season renewal of "The Munsters Today."
ABC, meanwhile, is reviving "Kojak" with Telly Savalas for its "Mystery Movie" series, which already sports Peter Falk in new "Columbo" episodes. The network has also ordered 16 new episodes of "Mission: Impossible." And Paramount will beam a third year of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" into syndication.
"It's a fickle audience out there," said Arthur Annecharico, executive producer of "Dragnet," "Adam-12" and "The Munsters Today." "The networks are pulling shows left and right and everybody is scrambling. Television is changing dramatically, and we feel there are people who want to rely on certain things they're familiar with."
"This is an uncanny time, when people are looking backward to go forward," said Al Burton, "Lassie" executive producer. "There's a thinness to culture today that may demand we go back to another time to find who we are. There is a texture that existed with 'Lassie' that is not on TV today. If it was simplistic, I forgive it, because it was also human."
Todd Gitlin, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and author of "Inside Prime Time," concedes that many people yearn for a simpler time. But he contends that dredging up television programming long ago laid to rest is primarily a marketing ploy.
"There's a cyclical dearth of imagination in television," he said. "Since success is so uncertain, (television executives) are always looking for prefab hand-me-downs. Sometimes they get them from pop movies, sometimes from big television successes of the past. Essentially, they're trying to win the baby-boom generation back to television by offering them golden oldies of the '50s and '60s."
"In our business, nothing is an original idea," countered MCA-TV president Shelly Schwab. "It's a play off something that's already been done. The reason shows like 'Lassie,' 'Dragnet' and 'Adam-12' will make it: They're classics. Not only did they have large audiences, they had loyal and passionate audiences."
"Television is a medium of safety and security," observed Gary Goldberg, "Family Ties" producer and creator. "There's a level some of the older shows fall into where the ritual aspect of watching becomes more important than the creative element. If a show is familiar and produces a comfort zone that people like, it doesn't really matter from a critical standpoint if the show is any good or not."
The first television classic to be transformed into a new series was "Leave It to Beaver." In March, 1983, viewers were introduced to a 33-year-old Beaver Cleaver, divorced and out of work, in the TV movie "Still the Beaver." Viewer interest soon led to a series, produced by MCA-TV for The Disney Channel in 1985.
Featuring many original cast members--including Jerry Mathers as Beaver, Tony Dow as Wally Cleaver and Ken Osmond as Eddie Haskell--the show was renamed "The New Leave It to Beaver" in 1986 and switched to cable superstation TBS, where it currently enjoys moderate success.
Paramount followed in 1987 by rallying perhaps the most devoted of all television audiences, the Trekkies. With more than 400 fan clubs nationwide, they helped "Star Trek: The Next Generation" go in its premiere season where no first-run syndicated series had gone before. Aided by critical praise and strong writing, the show was the top-rated first-run syndicated series among men and women ages 18 to 34, and garnered three Emmys and a Peabody Award.
The difficulty that producers face is trying to update a show while retaining the magic generated by the original.
Last year, "Mission: Impossible" brought back Lalo Schifrin's pulsing musical theme and Peter Graves as the relentless IMF team leader Jim Phelps. But instead of receiving his instructions from a self-destructing reel-to-reel audio tape, this time around Graves drew his mission assignments from a specially encoded video disc.
"I certainly think when we premiered this show we got a tune-in from people who used to watch it," executive producer Jeff Hayes said. The show was first conceived as a two-hour television movie last year, then rushed into production as a series after the writers' strike left a big hole in ABC's prime-time schedule. "We continued to get ratings because we included computers and holograms and things to make the sting work that weren't around 20 years ago. We did one story about a mission involving computer viruses infecting nuclear submarines.
NBC's "Dragnet," one of most successful police series in the history of television, achieved notoriety for introducing gritty realism to television programming. From 1952 to 1959, the late producer, director and actor Jack Webb portrayed Sgt. Joe Friday, a straight-faced, laconic homicide detective who delivered a police-blotter account of each case, drawn from the actual files of the Los Angeles Police Department, where the show was set.
When the series was resurrected in 1967 for a brief three-year run, it still boasted the frequently satirized but beloved Webb in the lead role. Therein lies the challenge for MCA-TV--finding a substitute for a cult hero. Universal came up short with Dan Aykroyd in the 1987 film "Dragnet," co-starring Tom Hanks as Capt. Bill Gannon.
"No one is going to replace Joe Friday; if they tried they'd be silly," executive producer Annecharico said.
Instead, the new show focuses on the relationship between two thirtysomething detectives played by relatively unknown actors. Taking over the investigations for Sgt. Friday will be Vic Daniels, played by 32-year-old Jeff Osterhage, who has appeared in several TV miniseries ("Sackettes," "The Shadow Riders"). Opposite him will be 27-year-old Latino actor Bernard White, portraying officer Carl Molina. White's main credits are guest appearances on shows such as "Murder, She Wrote," "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues."
The new "Dragnet," currently in production in Los Angeles, will see Webb's deadpan delivery replaced with some liveliness and humor between the two lead characters, while the traditional "dum-de-dum-dum" theme score will be revamped to make it sound more current. Just as the original "Dragnet" did, the writers of the latest edition spent considerable time in downtown Los Angeles shadowing officers in the detective division to maintain authenticity in their scripts.
The new "Adam-12," meanwhile, will find one-time police buddies Martin Milner and Kent McCord replaced by two young actors, one black and one white. The actors have not been cast and production is yet to begin, but Annecharico said the new show will be more action-oriented than the original, featuring liberal doses of car chases, gunfights and high-tech police procedure.
"Adam-12," on NBC from 1968 to 1975, was another brainchild of producer Webb and received plaudits for its accurate depiction of two uniformed policemen on patrol-car duty.
"In 175 episodes and seven years of original, first-run programming, we did everything you can do with that format," said McCord, who is on location shooting "Nashville Beat," a police pilot for the Nashville Network that teams him up again with Milner. "Whatever they do with 'Adam-12' is going to be a repeat of what we were doing. There's nothing wrong with taking an old formula and trying to make it work, but you can at least give it new characters and a new name. Ever since 'Dragnet,' cop shows have become imitations of imitations."
The most anticipated of the new/old crop of television series appears to be "Lassie," which stars Dee Wallace Stone ("E.T.") and husband Christopher Stone, and boasts the return of Jon Provost--who played Lassie's second TV master, Timmy, from 1957 to 1964--in a recurring role.
The family-oriented show brings to the screen a near-perfect Lassie replica--which is no accident. The dog is the seventh descendant of the original Lassie and is trained by the son of the first dog's trainer.
Instead of being merely a story about a boy and his dog, the new "Lassie" will throw a girl into the mix and move the family from the country into the suburb of a large city. The unflappable collie, stepping into a new age, will champion causes ranging from animal rights to latchkey children.
"This is a nostalgic time," said Tom Rettig (now 47 and a Beverly Hills computer store owner), who played the boy, Jeff Miller, in the original 1954 "Lassie" series. "It's no surprise that 'Lassie' is coming back--the only surprise is that it took so long. 'Lassie' is an institution that will keep cycling around. Every time there's a new generation, there will be a new 'Lassie.' "
Burton said "Lassie" received 25 station commitments before production began, including KHJ-TV Channel 9 in Los Angeles, which will give the show an early weekend time slot.
"We thought that 'Lassie' fit well with what we're going to be doing on Channel 9, which is to add some heavy children's programming," program director Walt Baker said. " 'Lassie,' as a strong family show, certainly fits that image, and we feel it has great potential to be successful. It has all the right elements--a dog, a family and the outdoors."
"Dragnet" and "Adam 12" have been sold in Canada, and the producers are currently shopping the show in the United States. The only firm commitment is from WOR in New York, a cable superstation owned by MCA. One insider suggested that MCA is reviving old titles merely to create fodder for their national cable network--a charge MCA-TV president Schwab denies.
"The marketplace has been very clear as to what they're comfortable with," Schwab said. "We as program developers and distributors react to what's going on in the marketplace, and that's currently nostalgia. The marketplace responded clearly when we announced the 'Munsters' and 'Lassie,' and we expect them to do the same with 'Adam-12' and 'Dragnet.' "
Not everyone sees that as a positive sign. "The market is ruthless, and it's getting harder than it's ever been to launch an interesting and innovative show," producer Goldberg said. "The problem with many television executives is they see something that works and then they want to do a dozen of those things."
Schwab and his fellow revivalists dismiss criticism that the audience would be better served by creative and adventuresome new programs rather than recycled hits.
"As far as I'm concerned, many of the old television shows are entertainment, whether they're done 20 years ago or today," Hayes, the "Mission: Impossible" executive producer, said. "That's why we're in this business--to entertain. And people want to watch shows that entertain. The final judgment rests in the hands of the audience."