Old TV, New Audiences Vintage Television Comedies Are Alive, Well and Living on Cable, Drawing in Fresh Generations of Viewers

Article excerpt

Barney Fife would be delighted, says Jim Clark, Presiding

Goober of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club.

Each week, several hundred Andy-o-philes visit Who's Been

Messing Up the Bulletin Board, the semi-official Internet page

for the club.

Fife, the loyal deputy played by Don Knotts from 1960-65 on

The Andy Griffith Show, was a man who loved new technology,

Clark noted.

So he would have appreciated the fact that the more than 20,000

members of the club's 950 registered chapters can communicate

daily in cyberspace, not only on the Who's Been Messing Up the

Bulletin Board web site but on a dozen or more unofficial web

sites devoted to the classic TV show.

While the mania for Mayberry, the idyllic -- and fictional --

North Carolina town that served as the setting for The Andy

Griffith Show, may be especially fierce, it is far from unique.

Since the early 1980s, interest in vintage television shows,

especially comedies, has been steadily on the rise, says Tim

Brooks, senior vice president for research for USA Networks and

co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and

Cable TV Shows .

People today are as familiar with the antics of Lucy and Ricky

from I Love Lucy, Darren and Samantha from Bewitched , and

Richie and the Fonz from Happy Days as they were when those

characters first entered our mass consciousness.

The trend had its origins in the mid-1970s, when first NBC and

then CBS ran 50th anniversary specials that featured lots of old

clips and drew huge audiences, he says. But what really caused

it to gather momentum was the rise of the cable television

industry in the 1980s.

The pioneer was Nickelodeon. From 1979 to 1986, Nickelodeon and

the Arts and Entertainment Network (now called A&E) shared a

cable channel, with Nickelodeon producing children's fare during

the day while Arts and Entertainment provided adult programming

at night.

When the services split in 1986, Nickelodeon needed something

to do at night. The concept was Nick at Nite, which packaged old

television sitcoms in prime time and through the late night and

early morning hours.

Most successful television shows then had, and still have, an

afterlife in syndication, either during or soon after their

network run. But before Nick at Nite, only a handful of golden

oldies like I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show stayed

around for very long once production ceased.

Nick at Nite packaged and presented such forgotten fare as

Mister Ed and The Donna Reed Show as classic television. The

concept caught on so successfully that today, a decade after the

launch of Nick at Nite, Nickelodeon is America's most-watched

basic cable channel.

Such was the success of Nick at Nite that in April Nickelodeon

launched a new cable channel, Nick at Nite's TV Land, devoted

entirely to vintage TV. Having started with 5 million

subscribers, it is now at 15 million and climbing.

Continental Cablevision will add TV Land to its cable lineup in

Jacksonville Jan. 1, primarily because it is "far and away" the

most-requested new service in the cable company's experience,

said Dave Reid, Continental's director of corporate affairs.

Meanwhile, even Hollywood has been getting in on the act,

turning old TV sitcoms like The Addams Family, The Beverly

Hillbillies and The Brady Bunch into successful feature films.

And more are being talked about: Gilligan's Island, Bewitched,

I Dream of Jeannie. …