“Gilmore Girls,” the WB dramedy following a witty mom-daughter duo in small-town Connecticut, was never close to a TV smash. At its peak, in 2002, the seven-season series ranked 121st in U.S. viewership, behind Fox’s “Temptation Island.”
But in the eight years since its cancellation, the show has traced a surprising ascent to cult stardom, inspiring viewer binges, a newly rabid fan base and key interest from streaming giant Netflix, who is reportedly pursuing an original reboot.
“Gilmore” will become only the latest in a series of revivals of turn-of-the-millennium niche TV shows like “Full House,” “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files,” which networks hope will help them stand out among the vast glut of things to watch on air and on the Web.
None of the early experiments in reheated TV has become a break-out hit. But in TV, a land where every meager success is formulized, the reboots are seen as cheap bets, with often low-risk premises, washed-up stars and built-in cores of superfans.
For networks struggling to hold onto cord-cutters, and streaming upstarts pushing to prove themselves, the ‘90s reboots offer another prize: The viewers who grew up on these shows are now, a few decades later, making the decisions on cable budgets of their own.
“Nostalgia is bankable now,” said Demi Adejuyigbe, whose episode-discussing podcast, “Gilmore Guys,” counts more than half a million listeners and released an “emergency podcast” to discuss the reboot news.
“The fans are being louder, and way more accessible, in terms of what they want,” Adejuyigbe said. “Everyone’s going for the great American TV show,” he added, but it’s not enough for a show to be good: “It has to be an event. It has to do something to get people talking.”
TV revivals have mostly focused on recognizable names unveiled during a simpler time, before binge-watches and spoiler alerts. Netflix, which previously revived the ‘00s comedy series “Arrested Development,” will next year launch a 13-episode reboot of ‘90s family sitcom “Full House.” Fox is resurrecting “24,” “Prison Break” and “The X-Files”; CBS is bringing back “Star Trek”; and Showtime has vowed to return to air the surreal ‘90s cult obsession, “Twin Peaks.”
The networks have also mined for gold among yesteryear’s cult cinema. Netflix this summer unveiled a prequel series of the 2001 satire “Wet Hot American Summer,” Starz rolled out the campy zombie serial “Ash vs. Evil Dead” on Halloween, and ABC and NBC have committed to pilots based on late-’90s cultural phenomena like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Cruel Intentions.”
Analysts say TV’s titans have swiped Hollywood’s sequel-centric playbook largely out of desperation: With about 400 original scripted series set to air this year — up from 213 in 2010 — networks today see a name-brand reboot as one of the most direct ways to draw in fans.
“With so many new series being premiered every year, good ideas are at a premium,” said Tim Westcott, a TV programming analyst with industry researcher IHS. “The fact is a lot of dramas are being made now that would never have seen the light of day before things got so competitive.”
That these cult classics stem almost entirely from the ‘90s and ‘00s is no coincidence, but a way of nabbing a slippery audience of young viewers who are nevertheless eager for something to watch. Four out of 10 U.S. homes now subscribe to Netflix or another streaming service, and the oldest person in half of those households is 45 or younger.
It’s “a coming of age of those who were heavy TV viewers” before mobile and Internet viewing took hold, said Kaan Yigit, president of SRG, a media research group. “These shows are a kind of puberty connection ... (t0) millennials who are sexy to marketers but harder to catch via TV.”
When Netflix, after sharing some disappointing numbers for its new U.S. subscribers earlier this month, was asked of its biggest challenge, chief executive Reed Hastings told analysts that it was “being the service that people want,” adding, “If we could have 10 more ‘(Orange is the New Blacks)’ and five more ‘Narcos’ — I know I’m putting a lot of pressure there — that would be really transformative.”
But the cost of finding, filming and marketing that many originals has added pressure to networks’ budgets, and created a problem that reheating TV’s leftovers can help solve. Rebooting an older venture — especially with cheaper actors, out of the spotlight — can be financially less risky than, say, crafting a gritty, award-winning crime drama from scratch.
Clamping onto a beloved franchise also allows networks, who may have to stand alone in an unbundled future, a trump card in getting superfans to buy their brand. Persuading a viewer to pay $11 a month for Showtime, for instance, could prove far easier when the reboot all the fans are talking about can’t be enjoyed anywhere else.
The TV rehash “is like a sequel. You don’t have to market it, it sells itself,” said Brad Adgate, a veteran media researcher with Horizon Media. “But you also open yourself up to criticism: The storyline wasn’t as good, the acting wasn’t as good. You have all these expectations from dying-heart fans of the show, who may not be that realistic about how well the reboot is going to be.”
Remakes of older TV sagas, like those of “Charlie’s Angels” and “Hawaii Five-O,” had previously focused on mainstream hits, not shows like “Gilmore” that would have traditionally been an easy pass for ratings-minded TV execs.
But analysts say the rivers of viewing and social-media data now tapped by Netflix and other networks have allowed them to zone in on potential surprises.
“These are reinventions of beloved shows with nostalgic value and fresh thinking,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, of their 13-episode reboot, “Fuller House.” “People all over the world love these characters.”
When Lauren Graham, who played “Gilmore’s” pop-culture-quoting matriarch Lorelai, tweeted a cheeky response this month to the Netflix rumors — “DUDES. I can’t confirm this. But I also can’t deny this...” — fans went on high alert, echoing out network buzz far more attractive than any pricey marketing deal.
Nostalgia, as “Mad Men’s” Don Draper would say, is “delicate but potent,” but getting it right is no simple task. An unlikely NBC revival of the ‘90s sitcom “Coach” — which network president Bob Greenblatt had defended by saying, “One man’s practical joke is another man’s hit show” — was canned this summer mid-production amid lackluster internal reviews.
CW reboots of ‘90s soaps like “90210” and “Melrose Place” were derided, and Netflix’s “Arrested Development” revival polarized viewers, turning off as many as it brought onboard. Even more recent cult favorites aren’t bulletproof: Yahoo took a $42 million write-down after its attempt to reboot ”Community” as an original Web series flamed out.
“The title may help get people in the door, but I don’t think nostalgia is enough for any show to be successful. It still has to earn its audience,” said David Madden, president of Fox Entertainment. “It can work both ways. Some shows launch well without a big title ... (and) sometimes you discover, ‘Wait a second, the audience wasn’t as eager to see that as we thought.’”
Time also waits for no reboot. Alexis Bledel, who at age 20 first played brainy high-schooler Rory Gilmore, is now 34, while the actor who played her grandfather, Edward Herrmann, died last year. The shows’ charm, fans worry, may have also arisen from a time that may not track as well into the modern day. As “Gilmore Guys” co-host Adejuyigbe said, “Why raise the dead and risk birthing a Frankenstein?”
Networks will likely push for more revivals to differentiate themselves from rising TV tides, analysts said, though they’re cautious also for the backlash: Too many dusty memorials could spoil even the most devoted nostalgic’s appetite.
But fans for now remain highly optimistic — even if only because they still have an easy way out. “Those old ones will always be there, no matter how bad the new ones are,” Adejuyigbe said. “We can always look back on the originals, and that’s a really special thing."