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Nick’s Nites to Remember

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one calls them reruns anymore. Thanks to Nick at Nite, the prime-time and overnight cable network, classic TV series from the beatnik era to the bell-bottom period have become cool again.

This week the channel with a nostalgic sensibility celebrates its 10th anniversary, airing one episode of every show ever aired on Nick at Nite. (The homage runs Monday through Friday from 8 p.m. till midnight. Check listings for the times of your fave.) This week the network adds two other pop hits to its lineup: “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “The Munsters.”

With marathons, theme nights and perky promotions, Nick at Nite has entrenched itself firmly into the viewing habits of baby boomers and their offspring.

Those viewing habits were in evidence early on in the O.J. Simpson double-homicide trial, when a key prosecution witness cited the Nick at Nite schedule in remembering the time he found Nicole Brown Simpson’s bloody-pawed Akita dog in their Brentwood neighborhood.

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Nonetheless, Nick at Nite prides itself on ignoring the trial.

“We’re the only one--or one of the only--networks that’s 100% O.J.-free,” declares Nick at Nite general manager Rich Cronin from his New York office. “We never even mention O.J. There’s something to that, a chance to get away from the crazy world.”

And getting away from the crazy--and real--world is as good a reason as any to tune into Nick at Nite and its classic, sometimes campy, entertainment. Nick’s studies show the channel as among the seven to 10 most often-watched cable channels. That’s a lot of people tuning into shows that originally aired as long as 35 years ago.

Ten years ago, old TV shows weren’t promoted on the tube at all. They either sat on the shelves or aired in syndication, rarely to fanfare. As reruns, they were often a viewer’s last resort. But still they were a known quantity.

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One thing Nickelodeon knew was children’s programming. Ten years ago, the channel spent five years creating a competitive image for itself--against the Disney Channel--as the quirkier daytime children’s channel. Nickelodeon at that time shared its cable transponder with A&E;, which took over the transmission after 8 p.m.

But when both channels expanded to 24 hours, Nick execs couldn’t quite decide how to fill the newly acquired 14 hours. “It didn’t make sense to have a full-time children’s channel,” Cronin says. “We looked at all kinds of possibilities, looking for something that would appeal to adults without alienating kids.”

Turning Nick into a comedy channel was considered--"long before Comedy Central,” says Cronin--as was a family film channel. Execs even thought about airing Nickelodeon shows through the night.

But eventually Nick looked to radio as its model. “We decided we wanted to be the oldies of television,” Cronin explains. “After all, the people who started MTV [part of the same company, Viacom, that owns Nickelodeon and VH1] were radio people.” They decided against oldies music television and turned to classic TV shows.

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It was a perfect match. “The beauty of it was, back then the censors were so much tougher, shows were more wholesome so kids could watch, with appeal to adults because they’d grown up with the shows and had strong emotional bonds to them,” Cronin says.

The other beauty was that many older TV shows were undervalued, not yet appreciated as classics or cultural icons. “The general public seems to think movies had real art and value, but classic TV was considered just reruns and didn’t have the value or was as important to culture,” Cronin says. “But the people who started Nick at Nite, and those here today, feel that the public loves classic TV.”

Nick at Nite has a big advantage over broadcast television because the channel can “pick and choose the best TV shows throughout TV history,” says Cronin. “We don’t have to take chances. We know ‘I Love Lucy,’ we love ‘I Love Lucy,’ so we put it on.”

And the numbers are impressive. During its first decade, Nick at Nite’s audience experienced steady growth. According to Nick stats, since last year alone, its viewers have increased by 37%, jumping from 470,000 to 697,000 homes on the average per night. The overnight cable station’s audience is broad--attracting children in the earlier hours of prime time and older adults throughout the evening and overnight. In fact, the only group who doesn’t tune into Nick at Nite are 13- to 17-year-olds, who are probably tuned to Nick’s sister channel MTV.

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“We have a brand of personality, a certain type of show as they channel surf,” Cronin says. “They know what they’re gonna get when they land on us: classic TV that’s wholesome and quirky. It’s a complicated scary world, and we’re a nice safe haven of wholesome classic TV shows that are light entertainment and an escape from scariness.”

And good writing. (Cronin is fond of pointing out that Nick at Nite shows have won a total of 94 Emmy awards on their original networks.)

Nick at Nite’s shows, ranging from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “I Dream of Jeannie,” run the gamut from critical to pop-culture hits.

Not everything is simple either. “We have great debates” about what to air,” Cronin says. But once shows are selected, irreverent promotions are designed to draw in the viewers.

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Who can forget “What’s Cooking With Donna?” with the star of “The Donna Reed Show” at the stove? Or “Do It Yourself Sitcoms,” submitted by viewers. Or “The Back of Patty Duke’s Head,” which threw the spotlight on Duke’s double? There have also been the “National TV Comedy Test”; “TV’s Perfect Moms”; “NAN’s Top 25 Countdown,” hosted by Casey Kasem; “Men in the Kitchen”; “April Fools,” on practical jokers, and last year’s Cinco de Mayo block, which offered four Nick at Nite shows dubbed into Spanish and aired with English subtitles.

Nick at Nite’s also gone on location. “TV Land Tours” took on malls across the country with a “Donnathon” in which women dressed as Donna Reed ran through Chicago tidying; a “suburbafest” party in the Big Apple, set in 1963, and an eight-city “The Partridge Family: Back on the Bus Tour.”

With a large canon of shows in its library, the channel has “an embarrassment of riches,” Cronin. Basically, he says, shows that were hits when they first aired, become hits on Nick at Nite. “The things that haven’t taken off are the cult favorites,” he says, citing “SCTV,” “Fernwood 2-Night.”

With television shows becoming the inspiration for hit movies, Nick likes to claim a lot of the credit. “We really helped build the whole television nostalgia phase. It’s become a common language,” Cronin asserts. “Go to a comedy club and see if you can find someone who doesn’t make a TV reference, because no matter what your socioeconomic status, you get a joke about ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or ‘The Brady Bunch’ or “I Love Lucy,’ and Nick’s really tapped into all that.”

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Let’s not forget about merchandising. Nick at Nite watches already have made their way onto collector’s tables at swap meets. “Ten years ago,” Cronin says, “no one cared about TV memorabilia. Now it’s the hottest item.”

So what’s next? Nick has launched a record label, with “Donna Reed’s Dinner Party” the first spun out. The CDs, which offer in the liner notes the recipe for Donna’s dark chocolate cake, have “music she plays when she has a dinner party,” says Cronin. Among the tunes: “Que Sera Sera,” “Moon River” and songs by teen idols and TV stars such as Paul Petersen and Shelley Fabares. Also new--and currently on the newstands--is a Nick at Nite magazine. Nick at Nite’s also launching an on-line network. And books on TV pop culture--both referential and show-specific--will be available in spring of 1996.

Next year, the channel introduces “The Women of Minneapolis” featuring Mary Richards’ buddies: “Rhoda,” “Phyllis” and “The Betty White Show.” And, in September of 1996, they’ll begin rockin’ around the clock with “Happy Days.”

“Basically, we have about 150 ideas and are finalizing them now,” says Cronin. “We’re out to challenge prime time and networks and maybe look into going 24 hours [with classic TV and to establish itself as a separate channel from daytime Nickelodeon].”

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Nick at Nite programming airs Sundays through Fridays, 8 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. and Saturdays, 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. on Nickelodeon.

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BLOCK PARTIES

NAN’s “Block Party Summer” or “Vertivision,” as NAN dubs it, begins July 3rd and continues through Labor Day, with six episodes of the same show featured 8-11 p.m. on weeknights. Here’s what’s will be on when:

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The Munsters: Mondays

I Love Lucy: Tuesdays

Bewitched: Wednesdays

I Dream of Jeannie: Thursdays

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Welcome Back Kotter: Fridays

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NICK AT NITE GUEST LIST

Here is the complete Nick at Nite stable of shows over the last 10 years. The debut year and run of the showin addition to air times for series currently on the lineup are in parentheses.

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The Donna Reed Show (1985-'94)

Route 66 ('85-'87)

My Three Sons ('85-'91)

Mr. Ed ('86-'93)

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The Monkees ('86-'88)

The Smothers Brothers Show ('86-'89)

I Spy ('86-'89)

Ann Southern Show/Susie ('87-'90)

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Mad Movies ('87-'89)

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In ('87-'90)

Car 54, Where Are You? ('87-'90)

Fernwood 2-Night ('87-'93))

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Make Room For Daddy ('88-'91)

Lancelot Link ('88-'89)

The Patty Duke Show ('88-'91)

Saturday Night Live ('88-'91)

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Second City TV ('88-'90)

Bewitched ('89-'91, ’94-currently airing Wednesdays 8-11 p.m.)

Green Acres ('89-'92)

The Lucy Show ('90-currently airing weekdays 2 a.m.; Saturdays 10:30 p.m.; Sundays 8:30 p.m. and 4 a.m.)

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Lucy & Desi Hour ('90-currently airing Saturdays 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.)

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis ('90-'93)

Alfred Hitchcock Presents ('90-'94)

Mork & Mindy ('90-currently airing Saturdays 3:30 a.m.; Sundays 1:30 a.m.)

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The Adventures of Superman ('91-currently airing weekdays and Sundays 11:30 p.m.; Saturdays 2:30 a.m.)

Dragnet ('91-currently airing weekdays 1 and 5 a.m.; Saturdays 1:30 a.m.; Sundays 11 p.m.)

Get Smart ('91-'94)

F-Troop ('91-currently airing weekdays 2:30 a.m.; Fridays 5:30 a.m.; Saturdays 3 a.m.; Sundays 1 a.m.)

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Superman ('91)

The Dick Van Dyke Show ('91-currengly airing weekdays at midnight and 4 a.m.; Saturdays 1 and 4 a.m.; Sundays 9 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show ('92-currently airing 11:30 p.m. and 3 a.m.; Saturdays midnight and 4:30 a.m.; Saturdays 9:30 p.m. and 5 a.m.)

The Partridge Family ('93-'94)

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The Bob Newhart Show ('93-currently airing 12:30 and 4:30 a.m.; Saturdays 12:30 a.m.; Sundays 10:30 p.m.)

I Dream of Jeannie ('94-currently airing Thursdays 8-11 p.m.)

I Love Lucy ('94-currently airing Tuesdays 8-11 p.m.; Saturdays 10 p.m.)

The White Shadow ('94-currently airing Sundays midnights)

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Taxi ('94-currently airing weekdays 11 p.m. and 3:30 a.m.; Saturdays 2 a.m.; Sundays 10 p.m.)

The Brady Bunch ('95, specials only)

Welcome Back Kotter ('95, Fridays 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.)

The Munsters ('95, Mondays 8-11 p.m.)

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