LOS ANGELES — Abraham Lincoln spent the entire summer growing out his sideburns in the hopes of impressing Cleopatra, but it was a goth-styled Joan of Arc who yearned for his attention at John F. Kennedy’s back-to-school kegger.
Such was the plot of the pilot for “Clone High,” an animated teen comedy series whose premise was so absurd — historical figures cloned as part of a government experiment return to high school — that it could have only been produced by MTV in 2003. The network was experimenting in its attempt to find a follow-up to “Daria,” which also championed teen misfits and social outcasts. But “Clone High” never caught on; it was canceled after just 13 episodes.
“It was just like the kookiest idea ever, but that show was gone, lost,” says Erik Flannigan, executive vice president of music and multiplatform strategy for MTV. He’d all but forgotten about its existence until meeting Chris Miller, the series’ co-creator (better known as co-director of “The Lego Movie”) when their children attended the same kindergarten in Los Angeles. Around the same time, MTV was undertaking a massive archiving project, working with the data management company Iron Mountain to digitize its assets, eventually spurring Flannigan and his colleagues to launch a new network centered entirely on old content.
Last summer, the cult show was resurrected from the dead, much like the historical figures it parodied. It is one of more than three-dozen shows that now air regularly on MTV Classic, which replaced VH1 Classic on Aug. 1, the 35th anniversary of MTV’s original air date. The network is just one example of how old-school TV companies are scouring the vaults and finding new ways to bring back vintage programming that appeals to viewers now in their 20s and 30s. They are not only embracing these viewers’ thirst for 1980s and ’90s nostalgia but also trying to win back a demographic that’s been cutting cable in favor of streaming services, delivering a blow to their ratings.
“In a weird way, the strategy seems to write itself: Like, huh, we have all this stuff, we already own, it, people seem to want it,” Flannigan says of MTV Classic. It helps, of course, that MTV’s vintage programming, for many millennials, coincides with “that window of your life that’s so formative and so meaningful, and so really like, beginning adulthood,” he says. Since the switch to MTV Classic three months ago, the network has grown its viewership among 18-to-49-year-olds by 14 percent, according to Nielsen.
These shows’ reemergence comes as cable and streaming services are awash in remakes and reboots. This fall, Fox is airing TV shows based on “Lethal Weapon” and “The Exorcist,” while CBS rebooted “MacGyver.” A new season of “Gilmore Girls” arrives on Netflix next month, and a new “Twin Peaks” comes to Showtime in 2017.
Binge-watching is fueling the trend. When ABC relaunched its streaming service in June, it began offering quirky old favorites labeled online as “throwbacks”: “Schoolhouse Rock,” “My So-Called Life,” “Felicity,” “Dinosaurs” and many others, in the hope that viewers might binge on those, too. CBS’s site offers vintage shows such as “Beverly Hills 90210” and “The Brady Bunch” alongside current programs such as “2 Broke Girls,” “The Good Wife,” and both the new and retro versions of “MacGyver.”
“It starts with nostalgia, because there’s no paid marketing happening for any of these shows right now,” says Karin Gilford, ABC’s senior vice president of digital media. Former network stars like America Ferrera have helped promote older shows like “Ugly Betty” on social media “and it starts becoming that fear of missing out all of a sudden,” Gilford says. The throwback shows are helping to grow ABC’s overall viewership online by about 20 percent, according to the network.
If MTV Classic aims to engage 20- and 30-somethings with animated (“Daria,” “Clone High”) and reality shows (“Laguna Beach,” “The Real World”) about the awkwardness and heartache of high school and college, then the Splat wants to remind them of even simpler, prepubescent times. The block of shows on the channel TeenNick recalls an era when getting slimed in green goo was a rite of passage on a game show that involved digging for flags in giant prop noses. When “Double Dare” host Marc Summers appeared at Comic-Con last summer to promote the show’s 30th anniversary special, he was swarmed by mobs of fans as if he were the A-list star of the latest superhero movie, according to Nickelodeon executive vice president Keith Dawkins.
Dawkins has capitalized on the excitement surrounding onetime Nickelodeon celebrities from the 1990s by staging a series of cast reunions, including one for “All That,” the kids’ variety show on which SNL cast member Kenan Thompson got his start. He’s also organized “activation” events featuring characters and merchandise at music concerts, NBA games, and 1990s festivals (yes, those are now a thing) around the country. The Splat’s social-media pages are filled with memes and GIFs that remix 1990s TV shows with contemporary Internet culture. A GIF of a “Hey Arnold!” character doing the electric slide, for example, is titled: “How ’90s kids slid into each other’s DMs.”
“It’s kind of a fan-first initiative,” Dawkins says. “We try to listen to the themes that the audience is talking about, not just around ’90s Nickelodeon, but just also around how they use social media, things that represent cultural currency today, and then get the Nickelodeon library back out to them in ways that are familiar to them.”
Dawkins believes the Splat resonates not just because its shows are from the 1990s, which are having a moment in the cultural zeitgeist, but because they originally aired at a time when it competed with little else. “It was a very unique thing that was happening in the kids’ marketplace at the time, and Nickelodeon was at the epicenter of that,” he says. “So now you have this person who is 27 years old, and they think that was the golden age of everything.”
Today, for example, a teen might choose to watch “Seinfeld” on Hulu or “Friends” on Netflix rather than tuning into the cable networks that were once authorities on youth culture. “Now those same girls I’m trying to get to watch MTV, I’m competing with ‘Friends.’ There’s no other time like that,” Flannigan says. “The competition is insane.”
To some extent, television’s embrace of nostalgia is nothing new. Before the Splat, there was Nick at Nite, which launched in 1985 and still airs nightly on Nickelodeon, with shows such as “Full House” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in heavy rotation. And four years before MTV Classic, the network experimented with a morning programming block called “Retro Mania.”
The question is, how long can networks persuade their aging audiences to relive the golden age of their childhood? For now, executives aren’t too concerned. To them, cloning old programming is almost always a safer bet than creating original content — especially when their stash includes a series as weird and beloved as “Clone High.”