Saturday, March 31, 2007


In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly (who travelled back in time from the Eighties to the Fifties) remarks to his mother's family that he must have seen a then brand new episode of The Honeymooners "on a rerun." His mother's father (and future grandfather) replies, "What's a rerun?" In reality this is a bit of an anachronism. Even in 1955, almost everyone would know what a rerun was.

That is not to say that reruns had been around for a long time in 1955. On radio, reruns were not unknown, but they were very, very uncommon. Much of this was due to limitations in the technology of the time. Until the development of magnetic tape, radios shows would have to be recorded on expensive and fragile 16 inch discs. When magnetic tape was introduced in the late Forties, television was just starting to take away radio's audience. Reruns were then a rarity in the Golden Age of Radio.

This certainly would not be the case with television, although it took some time before the practice of repeating shows would become commonplace. In its infancy, most programming on television was aired live. The reasons for this were purely economic. Filming was more expensive than simply airing shows live (videotape would not be available until later). It must be added that film would have also meant that the networks would have had to dealt with Hollywood, who at that time regarded television as a bitter rival. Before reruns could become common, filmed TV series would have to become the dominant source of programming on television.

The move towards filmed TV series would happen gradually, over many years. Among the pioneers in the field was Frederick Ziv. Ziv had seen some success in radio syndication, and in 1949 decided to expand into television. Naturally, to be syndicated to various local stations across the country, the shows produced by Ziv would have to be filmed. Since the shows were filmed, they could easily be rerun. And Ziv Television Productions reaped nearly all of its profits from reruns.

This is not to say that Frederick Ziv was the only television producer aware of the advantages of film. The first filmed network series was Fireside Theatre, which debuted in 1949 (a full two years before I Love Lucy). A year later saw the debut of You Bet Your Life, the legendary game show hosted by Groucho Marx. The series was filmed, allowing for two things. The first was the ability of the producers to edit out any of Groucho's more risque comments. The second was that the show could be rerun. Indeed, You Bet Your Life is one of the earliest, if not possibly the earliest, American network TV show to be repeated during the summer months. In the early days of television, when TV shows went off the air for the summer, their time slots would be taken by summer replacement shows. As the Fifties passed and more series were shot on film, summers would increasingly become dominated by summer reruns. By 1956, summer repeats outnumbered original programming by a large margin.

As much as some people might complain about summer reruns, there have actually been shows that have been saved by them. When it debuted mid-season on CBS, All in the Family initially did poorly in the ratings. It would not become a hit until it was rerun in the summer. During its first season, the ratings for Cheers were so low that NBC nearly cancelled the show. Fortunately, its ratings rose dramatically during the summer rerun season. As much as many might dislike summer reruns, they can save shows that sometimes deserve to be saved.

Regardless, the dominance of filmed series would be assured with the success of Amos and Andy and I Love Lucy. Debuting a few months before I Love Lucy, the television adaptation of the notorious radio show actually predates I Love Lucy in using the multicamera setup. Protests from the NAACP would force CBS to cancel the series, still enormously popular, two years into its run. The NAACP would not keep the series off the air, however, as in 1953 CBS would make its 78 episodes available to local stations (it would remain in syndication until 1966, when CBS finally bowed to public pressure and withdrew it). In other words, Amos and Andy became the first syndicated, network rerun in the history of American television. It would not be the last. My Little Margie and other filmed sitcoms would soon enter the syndication market. These shows, like the majority of syndicated, network reruns to follow, would be "stripped" on local stations--that is, scheduled to air five days a week (Monday through Friday).

The advent of syndicated network reruns would have a profound effect on television. Indeed, it put a serious dent in the market for original syndicated programming. In 1955 Ziv Television Productions was the biggest independent producer of programming in the United States. By 1959 the company was in such dire straits that Frederick Ziv sold the company to United Artists. Syndicated reruns would also prove to be a boon to the independent stations which sprang up in the Sixties and Seventies. I remember the programing of both KPLR in St. Louis and KMBA in Kansas City consisted largely of network reruns--everything from Gilligan's Island to The Beverly Hillbillies to The Wild Wild West to Star Trek.

With filmed series coming to dominate television and the success of reruns syndicated to local stations, it would not be long before the networks would begin using reruns not simply as filler during the summer months, but as programming during the day time as well. NBC was the first network to do so, debuting an umbrella title they called Comedy Time, under which they reran various sitcoms which had gone off the air. It debuted May 14, 1956, with I Married Joan as its first series. Running until 1958, such shows as Topper, Private Secretary, and It's a Great Life aired under the title. In 1957, CBS started rerunning I Love Lucy on its daytime schedule, where it stayed for eight years. From the Sixties into the Nineties, the networks would fill blank spots in their schedules with reruns of sitcoms (some of them still on the air). Over the years I can remember watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, M*A*S*H, and several other sitcoms on daytime network television. As the networks cut back on their daytime programming, such reruns disappeared.

Of course, as time has passed the number of reruns on television has increased dramatically. In the Fifties, a full season of a filmed series might consist of as many as 39 episodes, with 13 weeks in the summer devoted to reruns. By the Sixties this number had dropped considerably. In their first seasons Bewitched and Gilligan's Island had only 36 episodes each. In its first season Star Trek only had 29. The number of episodes produced for a given series would decrease even more in the Seventies and Eighties. Now it is not unusual for a show to have as few as 22 episodes produced per season. As a result of fewer new episodes being made each season, there are naturally more reruns to fill the gaps. In the Sixties it was rare to see reruns of an ongoing series prior to the summer. By the Seventies it was not uncommon to see them in December and January. Now it sometimes seems as if there are more reruns aired in a season than original episodes.

It must also be pointed out that the market for reruns has changed dramatically. Independent stations were slowly shoved out by the rise of new networks (Fox, UPN, the WB), but their place has largely been taken by cable channels. Since their inception, such cable channels as the USA Network, TBS, and TNT largely depended on reruns for much of their programming. There is even still a market for older TV series. Nickelodeon started showing reruns of classic TV shows at night under the heading "Nick at Nite" in 1985. It has been around ever since. Indeed, it was so successful that it spun off another cable channel dedicated entirely to reruns of classic shows. Started in 1996, TV Land is among the most successful cable channels around. And it is not alone. The AmericanLife TV Network (originally The Nostalgia Channel, and later GoodLife TV) consists of reruns of such shows as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., F Troop, Harry O, and Kung Fu.

Syndicated network reruns have not only given shows that were successful in their initial runs a second life, but even shows that were not so successful. Some have even had more success in off-network syndicated reruns than they ever had in their initial runs. I Dream of Jeannie was only moderately successful in its first run on NBC, but became one of the most successful sitcoms in syndication of all time. Although now considered a classic, The Odd Couple suffered from low ratings throughout its five year run, but it went onto a very successful syndication run. Perhaps the perfect example of a show given new life through off network reruns is Star Trek. The series suffered from low ratings throughout its three year run (during its most successful season, its first, it only ranked #52 out of all the shows on the air for the year) and was nearly cancelled more than once. Once its reruns were in syndication, however, Star Trek became an outright phenomenon.

Reruns have existed for over fifty years. And there can be little doubt that they will continue to exist as long as there is television. And while many might complain about the reruns that air on the networks throughout the television season, it must be pointed out that modern American pop culture is largely indebted to them. Without reruns, Gilligan's Island would not still be airing today. We could not tune in to TV Land to watch The Addams Family. And Star Trek may well have been forgotten.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Some Good News For Geeks

Given how depressing my past few days have been, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about two bits of good news for all the geeks out there. The first is that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson (who play Harry, Ron, and Hermione, respectively) have signed on to have signed on to play their roles in the final Harry Potter films, clear up through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which will be published July 21 of this year. While I realise that there are some who migh believe the three could be too old for their roles, personally I couldn't see anyone else in the parts. For more on this story, you can go to "Potter" stars set for more wizardry.

In other news, a new novel by J. R. R. Tolkien will be published next month, on April 17. The Children of Hurin was begun in 1918. And while Tolkien revised it several time, he left it unfinished at the time of his death. Christopher Tolkien, son of J. R. R. Tolkien, completed the book using the various draughts his father had written over the years. The book will feature illustrations by Alan Lee, who had also illustrated The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He was also one of the concept artists on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. It is the first new Tolkien work to be published since The Silmarillion in 1977. The basic story of The Children of Hurin was briefly related in that book. Anyhow, you can read the story here: New Tolkien book to be published next month: report.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Monster 2001-2007

I feel like I have to apologise for yet another obituary in this blog. And I feel as if I have to apologise as I am sure that the vast majority of you have never heard of the individual who died and he had nothing in particular to do with pop culture (the central theme of this blog). But he was very important to me and has been central to my life the past few years. To wit, my cat Monster died last night at the age of six. Given the fact that heart disease tends to run in Maine Coons and his symptoms fit that of a heart attack, I believe that he died of cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, no veterinarians were open last night, not that I am sure he could have been saved anyhow.

I adopted Monster when he was all of six weeks old from a family friend. Her cat, a pure breed Maine Coon, had given birth to a small litter of kittens and she was giving them away. We chose the only male out of the litter (which was only three kittens), a cute, little bundle of yellow fluff. We believe that Monster's father may have been a pure breed Maine Coon as well. I remember when we took him home. I had to hold him all the way in the car; he was meowing loudly, no doubt distressed at being separated from his mother and sisters. He was a very loving kitten from the beginning. In fact, he wanted to sleep me that very night, but my old cat Patches wouldn't let him.

Monster was a rambunctious kitten, always getting into everything. That was the reason for his name--he behaved like a "little Monster." I remember that he tormented old Patches to no end, although I think she really didn't mind the attention. I also remember that as a very young kitten he had fleas so bad that for awhile we worried that we might lose him. Fortunately, we found a flea and worm treatment that restored him to health.

And Monster was a fairly healthy cat. He grew up to be about 20 to 25 pounds. He loved to play to the very end. He would play with our other cats. Oddly enough, he did not care much for expensive toys--his favourite thing to play with was the strip from old milk jugs. He was also fairly intelligent. He house broke himself, although he preferred to use the great outdoors to the litter pan. We had to do his business, he would scratch at the door like a dog.

Monster was also a very loving cat, perhaps the most loving cat we have ever had. He liked to curl up on us and be petted. And oddly enough for a cat his size, he liked to be picked up and carried around. He would sleep with us frequently. The entire neighbourhood loved Monster. He would visit them and let them pet him and play with him. In fact, the neighbourhood is taking his passing as badly as if he had been a human being, perhaps more so.

Even as he got older, Monster remained a very loving cat and a cat who enjoyed playing. In fact, it is hard to believe he was gone. Just last week he was playing with the younger cats. Yesterday morning he played with my youngest niece. Age did not seem to slow him down much.

At any rate, I cannot describe the pain I feel right now. It might seem silly to some of you, but I fear I am mourning Monster's death more than many human beings I have known. I feel in many ways like someone has just taken a part of me and ripped it from me. Right now I would give anything to hold him and pet him and hear him purr once more. I know I will always miss Monster.