There’s never been a more exiting time to be a fan of cancelled television. When word got out last month that Netflix was in negotiations to revive Warner Bros.’ dramedy the Gilmore Girls, fans of the long-dead series reacted immediately – whether in support of the idea or in bitter despair.
In one way or another, Netflix – and other online streaming services – are increasingly turning to the past. But why?
Gilmore Girls will be joined by iconic science-fiction franchise Star Trek, which CBS announced last week will go boldly once more to our TV (and laptop) screens. The all-new series will serve as a flagship drama for the studio’s streaming platform, CBS All Access, in 2017.
Back from the dead
Fan theories about Gilmore Girls were book-ended by both exultant, anticipatory cries of #netflixandchilton, and ominous trepidations about the streaming service’s ability to potentially exploit and mistreat a beloved, lamented narrative.
More interestingly, the announcement has spurred debate about streaming services mining our nostalgia to bolster their content catalogues. Is it sacrilegious to resurrect classic TV?
Gilmore Girls is just the latest in a long line of cancelled or completed programming that Netflix has revived: Arrested Development, The Killing and Full(er) House have all been granted reprieves. Earlier this year, Hulu picked up Fox’s The Mindy Project just nine days after it was cancelled, continuing its screening in a seamless transition for viewers.
While some are frustrated with the lack of original programming, the fact remains that for every viewer who wants to preserve his or her small-screen memories, there is another who would be utterly delighted to see them again.
This is especially the case if ratings-obsessed broadcasters may have underestimated the cult following of a series, a finale left audiences with vexing, unanswered questions, or a program was the premature victim of (big bad) network rebranding.
What’s more, there are now entire generations of television audiences who are watching cancelled programming for the first time via streaming services, spawning new online audiences larger than the original broadcasts were able to garner.
Television reboots are, simply, good for subscription video-on-demand business.
“Original” digital content
First, streaming services need content. Enormous amounts of money were initially outlaid, as these platforms established themselves, to license existing programming in a bid to expand menus. Netflix, Hulu and more recently the Australian service Stan have all recognised the importance of having a strong core catalogue of fan-favourites with which to woo subscribers.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that in order to differentiate themselves from established broadcasters’ online catch-up services, such as iView or SBS on Demand, and retain customers in a competitive environment, streaming platforms must also offer users exclusive content.
Netflix began developing original content in 2013 with the critically acclaimed House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Amazon Prime and Hulu soon followed suit. Even Stan is already in the process of commissioning several local productions, the first of which, comedy No Activity, was released in October.
Netflix’ success with original programming has been widely attributed to its ability to interpret and respond to vast quantities of user data. In this way the streaming juggernaut has been able to target numerous niche, as opposed to mass, audiences.
Television reboots act in a very similar, albeit simplified, way. They provide online platforms (whether it be Netflix or their smaller competitors) with exclusive content that is in immediate demand, literally giving an existing, faithful audience exactly what they want. Show recognition builds brand recognition and endears the increasingly more profitable niche audience to a specific outlet.
The power of niche
As we move away from traditional mass media advertising models, small and devoted audiences are increasingly important.
In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon Studios’ boss Roy Price made this argument:
Let’s say you had a show where 80% of the people you show it to think it’s pretty good. They might watch it, but none of those people think it’s a great show nor is it their favorite show.
But then you have another show where only 30% of people like it. For every single one of them, they’re going to watch every single episode and they love it. Well, in an on-demand world, show No. 2 is more valuable.
Traditional television ratings have always failed in this respect. They have long been an inaccurate and unreliable predictor of audience value. Commissioning programming and judging its success is becoming more and more about locating and catering to a specific, ideally existing audience (like loyal audiences of a past hit, for example), than attempting to create one.
Digital distribution affords content creators the stability with which to take the kinds of creative risks that networks would never have been able to commercially fathom, and that audiences may have been craving.
When Hulu picked up The Mindy Project it was to the relief of audiences and creators alike. Rather than having a season ordered a little bit at a time, the 26-episode commission gave show-runners the confidence to plan the narrative progression in the long term. The commercial-free platform allowed for longer episodes, attracted and sustained more guest-stars, and slackened the reigns when it came to the use of controversial innuendos.
In this way, television reboots not only ingratiate potential audiences to a particular digital distributor, but also attempt to garner favour by putting provocative, engaging spins on our cherished memories.
While television reboots will almost always fail to live up to expectations viewed through rose-tinted glasses, the fact remains that even if we hate the idea, if we loved the original we’re going to watch the reboot.
You can’t blame streaming services for exploiting our nostalgia if we allow our behaviour to be dictated by it.
Alexa Scarlata receives funding from Melbourne Networked Society Institute (University of Melbourne).
Authors: The Conversation Contributor