There is certainly no shortage of familiar titles returning to television these days, but while some return as revivals with original casts, settings and storylines intact, others are instead rebooted, drawing on the existing intellectual property and name brand but creating new characters, relationships and worlds for them to inhabit. In an increasingly competitive landscape, any show that comes from existing intellectual property can mean a built-in audience to aid in ratings, but also pre-set expectations.
“It’s stressful to be alive in America in 2018 for a lot of people, and there’s something appealing about the familiar,” says David Kohan, who co-created “Will & Grace,” which was revived last fall. “It’s something comforting because you know their voices, you know these characters, you know where they stand.”
Kohan and fellow co-creator Max Mutchnick reunited their long-running 1990s NBC sitcom in 2016 with a special election video featuring all four members of their original cast. The interest was so high from that short-form piece of content they were able to bring the series back with a season order in 2017. But while they believe both reboots and revivals are viable options for some properties, they agree they would have never wanted to do their show as a reboot.
“This cast is the reason that it’s even worth doing,” Kohan says.
Over on the CW, though, the opposite has been true. From the modernized retelling of “Dynasty” that launched last year, to this upcoming television season’s new versions of “Charmed” and “Roswell, New Mexico,” the network has invested in rebooting existing intellectual property over bringing back beloved casts for revival seasons.
“We’re always open to IP because they tend to have either some built-in brand awareness or an iconic character or a title that is a little bit well-known that gives a little bit of a leg up in the marketplace,” says executive vice president of development Gaye Hirsch. “But we always look for the opportunity to tell as unique and original stories as possible.”
In fact, some involved in “Roswell, New Mexico” are preferring to call it a rebrand instead of a reboot because of how the show draws inspiration from the books of the same name but veers into a different story from both the books and the 1999 television show.
The distinction between a reboot and a rebrand can be a fine line, though.
With “Roswell, New Mexico” the location name is just as important a part of what is familiar to the audience as any storytelling that came before it because of the “certain imagery about alien mythology” it evokes, Hirsch points out. But a show like “Charmed,” she adds, is more in line with what might be thought of as a traditional reboot because it “is a show about three sisters who are witches [which] was the concept of the original show.”
In some ways the Netflix version of “Queer Eye,” launched more than a decade after the original wrapped, walks that line between reboot and rebrand as well. While the show is still the “make better show” of the 2003-07 Bravo reality series, it has expanded its view.
“The format itself holds up. When you look at what our format is, our format is to help people,” says “Queer Eye” executive producer Rob Eric. “That in itself was multi-generational [but] it was really about finding what we needed to talk about now.”
Eric, who also worked on the original version of the show, points out that it was about “introducing five gay superheroes … who fly into your life, do fabulous things with you, fly away and hopefully you’ve changed.
“But with this one, we wanted to make sure that we got to know them — that they weren’t just coming in and changing everybody but rather getting to know the hero of the show and the hero was getting to know them,” he says.
The benefits of rebooting or reviving a show can come on both the creative and business sides. For creators, Hirsch says, “there’s something to work off” when it comes to characters and relationships, and that allows them to enter into a story with some key work potentially already done for them, which helps given production crunches. Additionally, there may already be a shorthand with the executives and marketing, given the knowledge of the original.
But this doesn’t mean anyone — creator or executive — can rest on their laurels in either the development or marketing stages.
When “Will & Grace” first premiered its revival season on NBC in September 2017, its live+same day audience was over 10 million viewers (it rose to 15.85 million when factoring in delayed viewing). As the season went on, though, those numbers declined, ending with an average of 5.5 total million viewers for live+same day and just under 9 total million viewers for delayed. “Dynasty” didn’t fare nearly as well, drawing only 1.27 total million viewers for live+same day on premiere night and ending the season with a season average of 680,000 total viewers.
Making something old new again has an event-ized feeling at the outset, which can draw a spectator audience. But it must still deliver something new to keep that audience engaged.
“We can pay homage and very much respect the old shows, but in some cases you have to leave the past behind,” says CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl. “The classic shows leave a great framework for a reboot but the shows have to live on their own, they can’t just tread on the past.”
CBS has seen reboot success with shows such as “Hawaii Five-0,” which is going into its ninth season and hitting the 200th episode milestone during the 2018-19 television season, and “MacGyver,” which launched in 2016. Also upcoming for the new television season on the Eye are a reboot of “Magnum P.I.” and a revival of “Murphy Brown.”
The reason to reboot one, but revive the other stemmed solely from producers’ visions, Kahl says. But, he notes, the timeliness of the way the updated versions are being told certainly helped pique interest and “show us a unique twist on a genre or a character.”
“Could we have done ‘Magnum’ five years ago or five years from now? Yeah, probably,” Kahl says. “But we took the Higgins character and went from an older English man to a young lady. The dynamics are kind of a fresher take on the situation.”
Latino Jay Hernandez, was cast in the titular role, which was previously inhabited by a white man. And with “Murphy Brown,” Kahl says, “it’s quite obvious that a show that was grounded in politics, those characters would have a lot to say these days.” The combination of returning to “characters we know and love” and the fact that “there is no shortage of material [for them] to mine right now” made “Murphy” a revival CBS wanted.
“They bring a name recognition, which in this day and age of 500 shows is helpful to break through the clutter. That being said, it’s no guarantee,” Kahl says, noting that “the exact same work” that the would put into a new show still has to go into launching a show with existing IP.
The success of “Queer Eye’s” Netflix reboot, Eric believes, has come more because of the story it is telling in today’s landscape than merely its name recognition.
“Even though ‘Queer Eye’ made a huge splash in 2003, it was kind of astounding of how many people who are now fans of the show had never heard of it,” Eric says. “I think the relatability of our show is what is making this show [successful]. … We definitely looked at where we were in politics and our social environment and thought, ‘Where can we have the most impact?’”
What was essential for “Queer Eye” was “to get out of New York City” and “go into America … and start meeting people and opening conversations.” The first two seasons saw episodes diving into topical discussions around homosexuality and religion, racism and transgender identity, which Eric says is a credit to the time of the show but also the network, given that the streamer isn’t beholden to advertisers the way a broadcast and cable would be.
But there are some who are just saying “no” to such returns right now. Patricia Heaton says “Everybody Loves Raymond” is off the table because original series stars Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle passed away, and “Ray [Romano] and Phil [Rosenthal] are sort of purists that way.” And former “Cheers” star Ted Danson who is now enjoying life on “The Good Place” says there’s “not a prayer in hell” about returning to that late-20th century iconic sitcom.
“It was a very ’80s and ’90s moment in the bars and in the home where people know your name and all of that. And it was built on adolescent behavior, which is funny in your 30s and 40s but maybe not so funny now,” he says. “I think there’s value in being part of a history in comedy and just letting that — what worked — stand alone.”