Nostalgia TV: How Hulu and Netflix are breathing new life into old TV shows
Jessica Mata wasn't even a year old when "The Golden Girls" ended its broadcast run on NBC in 1992.
But this summer, she has been captivated by Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose, the Florida senior-citizen housemates of "The Golden Girls." Mata watches at least four episodes a day of the sitcom, which joined streaming service Hulu's programming offerings earlier this year. She views them on her phone or her laptop during breaks between her college classes.
"I know 'Game of Thrones' is all the rage — and I watch it too, sometimes — but it doesn't have me hooked like 'Golden Girls,'" said the 25-year-old from Houston. "I'm on my third round of watching the series right now."
Viewers like Mata are discovering reruns of network shows not by flipping through TV channels but on streaming devices such as Hulu and Netflix. These digital platforms are doing something unexpected: They are creating new audiences for old TV shows.
At a time when television is booming with more than 450 original series in production this year, viewers have a multitude of options.
But shows such as HBO's "Game of Thrones" and NBC's family drama "This Is Us" also are competing for fans' attention with such well-worn fare as "The Golden Girls," "Full House," and the political drama "The West Wing," which debuted when Bill Clinton occupied the White House.
Making new money from old titles is a time-honored tradition in Hollywood, and studios owned by CBS, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Warner Bros. have been digging through their libraries to find shows that are primed for a comeback.
Amid the chatter about the so-called death of traditional television, studio executives have found ways to capitalize on the digital disruption that has prompted audiences to migrate to streaming platforms, binge-watch entire seasons, and flee traditional channels to avoid 30-second commercials.
At first, streaming service executives scoffed at the notion of putting dated shows (think shoulder pads, bell-bottom pants and boat-sized sedans) on their new media platforms. But they gave it a try to pad their programming shelves and were surprised by the strong performance of such shows as "Full House," "Friends," and "Gilmore Girls."
Netflix, Amazon.com and others do not release audience figures. But they have stepped up orders of older series and, in some cases, revived programs that had been canceled by networks, including "Arrested Development" and "Gilmore Girls," by ordering fresh episodes.
Next month, streaming service Hulu will add much of ABC's Friday night "TGIF" block of programming in the 1990s — "Full House," "Step By Step," and "Perfect Strangers" — to its library.
The strategy is paying off because the lighter, often effortless shows can counterbalance the current class of complex dramas wrought with tension.
"Most people also want TV to be entertaining and not feel like work," said Lisa Holme, Hulu's vice president of content acquisition. "Nostalgia programming is (like) comfort food."
ABC's publicity team dubbed it "Timeless TV." And it's not limited to shows that are no longer on the air.
Three years ago, ABC witnessed something unusual. Most shows gradually run out of ratings steam. But in its 10th season, the audience for ABC's soapy doctor drama "Grey's Anatomy," suddenly grew by nearly 1 million viewers to 12.3 million.
ABC executives concluded that teenagers were discovering the show on Netflix, binge-viewing whole seasons and returning to the ABC network to watch the current season. Through focus groups, ABC estimated the average age of the Netflix audience for "Grey's Anatomy" was 29, which was striking for a program that debuted in 2005.
"Almost half of those people were not even out of elementary school when the show began," said Cindy Davis, executive vice president of consumer experience for the Disney-ABC Television Group. "Teenage girls were discovering 'Grey's' for the very first time."
Then, some began watching the show on ABC with their moms, providing the bump in ratings.
"My fans have literally given birth to new fans," said the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes. "That's crazy to me."
Even without tangible viewership data from Netflix, Marta Kauffman, the co-creator of "Friends," said the resurgence has been obvious. Her sitcom about six young New Yorkers anchored NBC's Must-See TV lineup for a decade, from 1994 to 2004, and now plays in TV syndication and on Netflix.
Friends of her teenage daughter discovered it. "There was one kid who thought it was a period piece. He was like: 'Have you seen this new show called 'Friends'?" Kauffman said.
So what's the appeal of these older programs? Analysts say there are some enduring qualities: great writing, pitch-perfect casting and actors who leave an impression with their performances.
Most have aspirational elements that allow viewers to imagine that life for themselves. In the 1990s, young women wanted "The Rachel" — the hairdo sported by Jennifer Aniston, who played Rachel in "Friends."
They also remain topical. Fordham University bioethics adjunct professor Elizabeth Yuko incorporates "The Golden Girls" in her lessons, as it tackled in prime time such thorny issues as euthanasia, organ donation and stigmas over HIV-AIDs.
"Some of the topics that were covered in these shows are hugely relevant right now: racism, women's rights, domestic assault and medical ethics," she said. "Especially now, when nuclear war is on the table, it is reassuring to have a story with familiar faces and characters, and a storyline that you know will get wrapped up with a bow in 22 minutes."
"The Golden Girls," which aired Saturday nights on NBC from 1985 through 1992, has long been a favorite — there's even a Buzzfeed list dedicated to the best insults said on the show.
"Did I think the show would be popular this long?" the show's creator, Susan Harris, said. "No, I didn't expect it — but it is wonderful."
Her show, as well as "Friends" and "Seinfeld," share a common element — each depicted friends coming together to form nontraditional families.
"It's a very optimistic and reassuring show," Harris said. "Watching it, you could see that growing old doesn't have to be dismal. You don't have to be alone; you could have fun ... and create a new family with your friends."
These programs also have a high level of co-viewing, the industry term for a show that families watch together.
"Many of the newer shows are ridiculously edgy," said Melva Benoit, a digital media professor at the Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management and former network executive. "If you want to watch a show with your kids there is a certain amount of safety."
The ample supply of episodes feeds younger audiences' appetite for binge viewing. Consulting firm Deloitte found in a recent survey that millennials and younger viewers reported watching an average of six episodes, or five hours of content, in a single sitting.
Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of "Gilmore Girls," said that it wasn't until the mother-daughter drama became available on Netflix that she noticed the wave of binge viewing.
"People were stopping to say, 'I watched it all in 10 days' or 'I watched it all in three weeks,'" she said. "I think people like having access to all seven seasons ... it gave a flexibility that I think sort of opened it up to people with different kinds of attention spans and different kinds of lifestyles."
There are distinct windows for nostalgia, experts say. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "MASH" entertain Baby Boomers because of the beloved characters and portrayals of days gone by. Some fondly remember watching the reruns after school.
Shows that were successful in the late '80s and '90s are especially popular among Generation X and millennials.
Even shows from the early 2000s qualify, said Rick Haskins, executive vice president for marketing and digital programs at the CW network. "For millennials and Gen Xers, nostalgia is much different," he said. "Nostalgia for them is last week."
Twenty years ago, cable channels depended on network reruns. Now, streaming services also are using them to augment their catalogs.
"The business of television is built on repeats," said Benoit of Pepperdine. "It's the natural progression."
TV studios fetch hefty sums in the sale of older shows. A sitcom, such as "The Golden Girls," can bring in $50,000 to $100,000 an episode, whereas a potent drama like "The West Wing" goes for more than $200,000 an episode, according to a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to comment.
Broadcast networks such as CBS and the CW have also used episodes from their own stockpiles to fortify their streaming outlets. CBS blends new content with old shows that it owns, including "Star Trek," "Frasier," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and even "Perry Mason," to stock the cupboards of its nearly 3-year-old streaming service, CBS All Access.
In late September, CBS will build on its "Star Trek" fleet by launching the latest installment, "Star Trek Discovery," to lure new subscribers to the $5.99-a-month service.
Streaming services are even bringing back smaller shows, such as the family drama "Everwood," which went off the air in 2006. The series found a home this summer on CW's digital outlet, the Seed.
"The nice thing about this climate is that shows don't end when they end," said the show's creator, Greg Berlanti. "They can be like a novel, and you can experience them again."
Story by Meg James and Yvonne Villarreal / Los Angeles Times