Christine Jardine: Comfort TV keeps us sane

Bring on the economic recession, climate change, political uncertainty and social unrest, for old friends offer us a safe haven from the storm, writes Christine Jardine

Bring on the economic recession, climate change, political uncertainty and social unrest, for old friends offer us a safe haven from the storm, writes Christine Jardine

There’s been a trend on television recently that you might have noticed. Arguably it began with the new version of Doctor Who, then Upstairs, Downstairs and carried on through the revamped Mr and Mrs, Surprise Surprise and reached new heights with the return of Dallas.

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It may even be responsible for the reruns of Cheers on ITV4 every night of the week.

The reason for the re-emergence of all these old favourites? It’s the economy, stupid. To be more precise, the recession.

Three years ago at a TV seminar in Glasgow a senior executive from one of the world’s leading production companies jokingly suggested that we should watch the TV schedules for exactly this trend emerging.

The basis for his argument was The Price is Right. The most successful game show in history it is an institution on US television, which has lasted more than 50 years and is often regarded as a bellweather of audience trends.

Recessions prove the point. In tough times the old favourite’s viewing figures rise. In good times they slip back to normal.

It’s not just the prizes on offer or being cheaper to stay in and watch TV, he explained.

When the news itself is bleak, even depressing, it seems we like reassurance in our viewing as much as elsewhere in our lives.

Comfort TV. It allows us to sit back with an old favourite and enjoy the warm glow of remembering happier, younger or just different times. And it’s a trend the TV executives are happy to exploit.

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Perhaps the best example we have seen recently is the much heralded return of Dallas on Channel 5.

Twenty-one years after JR flashed his last evil grin out of the screen he was back. Almost three million viewers – a record for Channel 5 and double its average audience – tuned in to see him.

I admit I was one of them, and when the old theme music started over the same style opening sequence I knew exactly what that executive had meant three years before.

Here was an old friend from younger, less expensive, more carefree days and it was good to see him again.

With Dallas, of course, there was the added factor of the original show having launched in 1978 and seen its fans through the recession of the Eighties.

So here was not just an old friend, but one we had been through tough times with before and come out the other end.

But let us not pretend that executives do this out of the goodness of their hearts to cheer us all up in tough times.

No. It’s all about the advertising revenue.

FremantleMedia is one of the world’s largest and most successful independent production companies whose stable includes such blockbusters as X-Factor, Pop Idol, American Idol, the Apprentice and many of the most successful – and often advertiser rich – shows both sides of the Atlantic.

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It also bought the rights to The Price is Right, and owns Wheel of Fortune, another long-running success and gauge of audience trends in the US.

Amongst the shrewdest operators in the TV market they have backed their modern stable with old favourites they can rely on us to love.

As the recession begins to bite, and advertisers become more difficult to attract, what could be better than a sure-fire solid ratings favourite, a long-running success story with a loyal audience and timeline of viewing figures that illustrates an increase in popularity coinciding with dips in the economy back to 1956?

Or why not bring back a popular show that will generate headlines, water-cooler chat and advertising revenue?

From that point of view Dallas was almost certain to return to our screens when a 2007 survey for Time magazine listed it among the top 100 TV programmes of all time.

The 1980 “Who Shot JR?” episode had a worldwide audience of 350 million people, and its controversial “Dream Series” which led to Bobby Ewing reappearing in the shower after being killed in a storyline which was explained away as a dream, was one of the most talked about.

This time round its initial 2.9 million audience on Channel 5 did not last throughout the series. But it has been signed for a second season in the US and it might yet reappear this side of the Atlantic.

There are also home-grown examples of the trend. Doctor Who is undoubtedly the most successful, returning to our screen in 2005 before the worst of credit crunch, but probably benefiting from the feel-good factor it provided through the early part of the economic 

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Celador, makers of the world-wide ratings phenomenon Who wants to be a Millionaire?” snapped up the rights to the 1970s game show Mr and Mrs.

Now relaunched as All Star Mr and Mrs with Philip Schofield and Fern Britton it is about to have its second series. The original launched in 1973 and ran for more than 500 episodes.

And Holly Willoughby is bringing back ITV’s Surprise, Surprise which, originally fronted by Cilla Black, dominated Sunday schedules in the 1980s and 1990s.

The commissioning executives bringing back these old favourites will not have done it on a whim. These are professionals who will have used their focus groups and research to identify those programmes which not only provoke a positive response amongst their old audience but are also capable of appealing to a new one.

It won’t work for everything. Its difficult at the moment to see how the BBC could bring back the once iconic Jim’ll Fix It, despite what may have been an experiment in refloating the programme when a special edition was fronted by Shane Ritchie shortly after the now disgraced Savile’s death.

And both Upstairs Downstairs and the legendary Forsythe Saga failed to make much the impact their makers may have hoped for on their return.

But if the economic experts are right and we have not yet put all of the economic hardship behind us we may yet have a few more old friends to welcome back.

Maybe the Vicar of Dibley has been promoted and we could be given an insight into her life as a bishop?

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Perhaps there is another generation of the Blackadder family with a tale to tell or maybe a few of BBC’s old favourites like the Onedin Line, Lovejoy or ITV’s Hadleigh could be dusted down, re-cast and return to our screens.

If they are I will doubtless be there with millions of others settling down to enjoy the return of an old friend and just for that hour or half hour shut out the harsh reality of