BOB GARFIELD: The Golden Age of Television is -- now! May sweeps season has brought back the hit shows of yesteryear in three forms. First is the standard reunion -- warm reflections from the casts of such shows as M*A*S*H and The Cosby Show. Next we have the specials that fawn over an entire network or genre. NBC leads this category with separate sitcom, outtake and game show specials along with the 75 Year Anniversary Show. ABC showcases the 50 best shows ever, and CBS has a 50 year reflection on its studio building! And finally we can see the past on current shows. The cast of St. Elsewhere on the show Scrubs; the cast of Cheers on Frasier; Hill Street Blues on Third Watch. Even more disturbing, we have tributes to the 6 year old Everybody Loves Raymond and the 4 year old That '70s Show. Media critic James Poniewozik of wrote about this dip into nostalgia for Time Magazine. He joins us now. James, welcome back to OTM.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: So, James, did I miss anything?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: I'm sure you have somewhere in there. I mean depending on how you define them, there are upwards of two dozen shows like this here.
BOB GARFIELD: To what can we attribute this upswing in nostalgic fare?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK:Well there are a few factors. CBS ran a Carol Burnett clip special in November that drew a surprisingly huge audience, and various amateur pop psychologists rushed out to say that this was the result of post-9/11 longing for quote/unquote "comfort culture," burying ourselves in fond memories of the past. There is the fact that it is sweeps; they've found it less and less easy to make the economics of the old big sweeps blockbuster add up. Getting some, you know, sort of faded stars to sit around on a couch and talk about how much they loved doing the show 25 years ago, that's dirt cheap. I also think that this allows the big 3 networks to relive the days when they were the only game in town. They drew 30 million viewers apiece every night. The networks nowadays are not unlike a dying person who sees pleasant scenes from their past life, you know, flash before their eyes on their death bed. And ironically this is actually an appetite for TV's past that in many ways has been fomented by cable programming. Cable has made a sort of genre out of rating TV's past and in the process has eroded network TV's ratings. In a way this is sort of the networks kind of playing cable's game for them.
BOB GARFIELD:Now that's interesting because as we have discussed God knows how many times on this show, advertisers are almost obsessively in search of younger viewers. While the nostalgia shows may generate an audience, are they generating the kind of audience that advertisers are craving?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: They do in fact draw a surprising amount of younger viewers. We sort of live in an era of premature nostalgia among young people generally. The fact is, it's actually pretty easy to get, say, today's 35 year old all misty over the past the way we usually associated that with 65 year olds.
BOB GARFIELD:On the other hand if not a nostalgia look back at Carol Burnett and St. Elsewhere, the networks would have little to fall back on but Bob Patterson which they canceled I think after the first 8 minutes of the first episode.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Yeah, [LAUGHS] exactly. Any way you slice it, it doesn't really speak well for any original programming that the networks have tried to develop on their own instead.
BOB GARFIELD: You think they'll bring The Flintstones out of retirement? I've heard Rubble refused to participate.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I, I think they may be holding out for a reunion movie.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, James. Thank you very much.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Okay, thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Poniewozik is the TV writer for Time Magazine.