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Evergreen TV


After nearly 5,000 syndicated telecasts in Portland, Ore., Perry Mason is still a hit. The 271-episode, former CBS series has been running continuously on KPTV since 1966, in prime time, fringe and, now, daytime. Not only that, in a five-station market, Perry is the second-ranked program at noon, Monday through Friday, and tops key demographics of every series with which it competes, including Live With Regis & Kathy Lee and Hollywood Squares, as well as a newscast.

"In February, KPTV did a [5 rating/19 share] in the Nielsens with Perry," notes Janeen Bjork, VP and director of programming for Seltel. "It's awesome. Most old shows don't do this well."

Or do they? How about CBS affiliate WFMY-TV's 25-year-old Andy Griffith Show beating Donahue (15/35 to 12/25) in Greensboro, N.C.? Or, in Los Angeles, KTLATV's 30-year-old Bonanza, taking its time period in a 10-station market every weekday at 11 a.m.? Then there's WPWR-TV's Green Hornet marathon in Chicago, which made the independent the number-two station for its three-hour time period, putting it ahead of three other indies and two affiliates. In New York, Arbitron recorded a 4/5 for WWOR-TV's Thursday 8-p.m. runs of The Untouchables in February, compared with a 4/7 for Hunter on Tuesdays.

So, some of the big news in syndication these days is of old series: The Andy Griffith Show, Star Trek, The Honeymooners, Perry Mason. "Some series simply do not date," observes Steve Bell, senior VP and general manager of KTLA. "They have dynamic performances, memorable routines, and quality scripts that are classics. They are the kinds of shows you just want to see again and again." Joseph B. Zaleski, president, domestic syndication for Viacom agrees: , 'Classic TV series are still an important part of programming for independents and affiliates. [Whether black and white or color], they won't go away. They are building blocks for a station."

And yet for all the "evergreens," there is a small forest of series whose leaves have fallen-shows that for one reason or another stations can do without: Guns of Will Sennett, Topper, Gunsmoke, Mayberry RFD, even the critically acclaimed Mary Tyler Moore Show. And duds can be dangerous. "There are no more throwaway time periods," suggests Jim Kraus, senior VP and director of sales for MCA-TV. "It is running tight everywhere. Every station needs to generate money from every time period. They can't have wall-to-wall Cosbys, but after they make a commitment to The Cosby Show, they have to have other shows around it." With that ever-tightening and increasingly more competitive marketplace, how-and why does an independent find a goldie among the oldies? How does one discern the classic from the klunker?

"No one knows what will work and what won't," claims Burt Rosenburgh, VP, Evergreen Division, Worldvision. "Stations should choose by their gut reaction to a show. Once you enter the realm of older product, we're talking about day-old bread. It's no longer an intelligent decision based on ratings. It's what you like."

Adds Vicky Gregorian, program director, WSVN-TV Miami: "It's hard to make generalizations [in this area] because things change in every market. Look at Andy Griffith. That'll probably go to the year 3000 in Roanoke, Va. That's their cup of tea, just like The Twilight Zone is in Boston. That appeals to a college crowd and is easy to sell there, but that doesn't mean it translates to a success in other markets."

Most station managers and syndicators agree, however, that there are certain criteria to follow in selecting evergreens. Chief among them is timelessness. Such shows as All in the Family and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, big hits during their network runs, have not fared well in syndication because of their topicality. Similarly, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a critical and popular hit on CBS for seven years during which Mary Richards symbolized the independent woman of the '70s, is among the least requested off-net sitcoms in syndication, playing in only 19 markets. "It just shows," notes Jack Fentress, VP and director of programming at Petry National, "you can have star value and a network run and those aren't necessarily long-lasting syndication elements. You don't want a show that deals with social or moral issues of the day."


In addition, a successful oldie must have strong storylines and well-written characters – two qualities frequently cited for Perry Mason, Star Trek, and I Love Lucy, three of the top evergreens. A former network hit like Daniel Boone, on the other hand, has virtually disappeared today because, KTLA's Bell notes, "it looks dated and tired. The pacing was slow." A series that depends on regular viewing of every episode – a Dallas or Hill Street Blues, for example, which follow sequential storylines over a number of episodes – suffers because audiences seldom make a daily commitment to a stripped program.

Another factor in making an evergreen a hit is the acting. "Sometimes you have stars who weren't stars at the time they appeared in the series," notes Bell. "You can promote that – Clint Eastwood in Rawhide or Robert Redford in an early Twilight Zone."

Then there is the audience composition. The classic example of how this helps is the original Star Trek. Although the science-fiction series had an unspectacular three-year run on NBC in the 1960s (never rating higher than 52nd), it became a hit when syndicated in the 1970s, so much so that series producer Paramount created Star Trek: The Next Generation. The original is now in 119 markets. Besides the timelessness of Trek's science fiction stories and the appeal of its characters, the show attracted a traditionally elusive youthful audience in early and late fringe periods. "Star Trek is unusual because it is like a half-hour," notes Greg Meidel, exec. VP and general sales manager for Paramount Television. "Usually hours are story-driven, but Star Trek is like a sitcom. It is character-driven, so you can play it anywhere and it works. It always attracts an audience."

Keith Samples, senior VP and general sales manager for Warner Brothers Domestic Distribution, first notes that independents cater heavily to kids and men. "That's an independent's lifeblood. A show like Mary Tyler Moore had a successful network run, but it really appealed to a network audience: women. That doesn't translate as well on an independent."

Conversely, appealing to a different audience segment has made evergreen successes out of critically lambasted series like Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch and I Dream of Jeannie. "Those were originally meant for adults in one era," notes Bell, "and now they are transplanted for kids."

The children's market, in fact, is an evergreen story all its own. "We are running The Flintstones and Woody

Woodpecker with success," says Gayle Brammer, VP and general manager, KDAF-TV, Dallas. "Kids keep watching cartoons and don't care if they're old or new."

Those shows have done "extremely well" in the last five or six years, says Jack Irving, exec. VP and director of media operations for The Program Exchange. "The Flintstones and Woody Woodpecker consistently rank among the top 10 kids' shows in the country. With children, the universe changes every few years and you get a completely new audience." Jim Gabbert, president of KOFY-TV San Francisco, puts it simply:  "Long live Popeye! He picks up kids and we're getting a lot of adults for him, as well."

"When you're going from animation to adult fare, some of the evergreens make great transitional programming," says Paramount's Meidel. "The Brady Bunch, to this day, can challenge any sitcom at 5 p.M. Gregorian agrees. "When I was at [WLVI -TV Boston]," she says, "we used to double-run Brady Bunch and it was the number-one kids' show for years. I think we had renewed it for its 16th run. We couldn't get enough runs out of it. That was a real family show that everyone could enjoy."

The Brady Bunch also has a hefty number of episodes, another item that helps an evergreen succeed. Shows like Perry Mason, with 271 episodes, and Bonanza, with 310, can be stripped for a year or more without repeats.


On the negative side, however, buying such a large quantity of episodes can be a major investment, even at the kinds of prices evergreens usually fetch. "I've toyed with the idea of picking up Rawhide," says Bell, "but I haven't done it because it's such a big commitment. You have to buy 200 episodes. Viacom never really tried to market it by offering a reduced number of episodes." Neal Sabin, director of programming at Chicago's WPWR-TV, puts it into perspective: "It can get expensive. If it's $200 an episode, 500 can run you $100,000."

This summer, WWOR will test Bonanza in the Thursday night slot where it was double-running The Untouchables. Director of Programming Ferrall Meisel says The Untouchables did very well when tested as three Saturday night two-hour specials, but that the Thursday night numbers have eroded. "It's on on a tough night, up against Cosby and the whole NBC lineup," he says.

"Now, we're bringing back Bonanza as a test. The thing that intrigued us was the quality of the prints. Republic has done an excellent 35-millimeter to one-inch digital transfer and the color is remarkable," Meisel says. "It's a drama with a western backdrop and Lonesome Dove's numbers indicate an interest in dramas with western backdrops, if produced properly. We will study the show's July demos before we put it on regularly. Syndicators are generally willing to have a test like that, especially if they want to launch a show in a market as tough as New York."

Such caution is becoming the norm for stations. "Everyone is paying off mid~80s deals," WPWR's Sabin continues. ''A lot of current product is just sitting there." At press time, ALF, Perfect Strangers, Amen and Golden Girls had not been sold in Chicago, Sabin said.

With the softening of the ad market in the last 18 months, the stiffening of competition, and the sale of TV stations, most report that buying has slowed. ''A number of stations are carrying a lot of debt," explains Samples. "In the past, they owed little and could pump a lot into programming. Now they have a large debt service and the first thing they do is pay interest to the bank. They are cautious in how they buy." Worldvision's Rosenburgh describes the same scenario. "There was a slowdown in the market because of the failure of a number of stations and because ad sales were not that good."

As a result, Gregorian picks up the story, stations can't afford to buy defensively or let something sit on the shelf anymore. "We've been burned in the past. At WLVI, I had Welcome Back, Kotter, Sanford and Son and Archie Bunker's Place. They were vestiges of an aggressive marketplace. We had wanted movies, so we said we'd take these shows [from the movie distributors] and figured we'd find a place for them. We never did. Something better always came along. It always does."

Some, including WPWR's Sabin, have turned these “shelf-shows" into a plus. "I looked at all we owned and asked myself, 'How can I use these?' " His answer was a regular Sunday oldies marathon. It has produced some impressive numbers. Three hours of The Green Hornet in February averaged a 4/9 in Nielsen and a 5/12 in Arbitron. "For one Green Hornet half hour we got a 6 rating," notes Sabin. "People were amazed." In a soft market, Sabin claims his station is the only one that's shown a share increase over last year. "We were up a point over February and March 1988. Everyone else is flat or down. Part of that is creative scheduling."

Such stunting is another key element in defining a perennial: how the show is promoted. "Look at [Nickelodeon's] Nick at Night," notes Gregorian. "It costs $50 to put Mr. Ed on, but through clever promotions, they make it seem like an important show."

"Some shows you can't kill, no matter what you do," adds Bell. "But others you have to nurture and make audiences believers, the way you are." Perry Mason, for instance, running three times a day on KOFY in San Francisco, flopped at 10 p.m. Sunday nights on New York's WPIX-TV. "They didn't give it a chance to develop a following,’ insists Viacom's Zaleski. "You have to change audience viewing patterns."

"My experience with classic programming," observes KOFY's Gabbert, "is you have to back it up with more recent programming. Before Perry Mason, which we run at 7 p.m., we have The A-Team. Before that, we have the old Leave it to Beaver and The New Leave it to Beaver. By mixing the old and new, the classics seem fresher and so does the station."

In fact, no matter how good the promotion, lack of freshness is the greatest danger in relying too much on oldies programming. KXLI-TV St. Cloud, Minn., for instance, attempted to run prime-time perennials five nights a week, checker-boarding them into genre nights: western, comedy, police, etc. "They got more attention in the media than they did viewers," says Donald O'Connor, president and general manager at KTMA-TV Minneapolis, which competed with KXLI until it became a KTMA satellite station. "It wasn't a bad idea, but you're competing with the networks [in checkerboard programming] and just because it's old doesn't mean it's good. I'm not sure Topper was ever a good show."


Indeed, warm nostalgic feelings can draw viewers to an evergreen, but if the reality of the show falls short of their recollections, they won't stay around. "I think too much is made of nostalgia," notes Kraus. "If it's a good show and the station can make money on it, it comes off the shelf. But that's a function of the market. The station has to be able to sell it to advertisers."

Topper didn't work on KTLA because "It was more stylized than I remembered it," says Bell. "The sense of , charm that I remembered had evaporated." At WPWR, Sabin recalls that The Fugitive was one of the most requested programs, "but when it went on, it didn't pull numbers. The pacing was more subtle than viewers today expect."

KOFY's Gabbert agrees. "You've got to be careful. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was heavily requested here. The first week we ran it in 1986, it did 5 ratings at 5 p.m. every night. The following week, it dropped to 1s and even fractions. I couldn't figure it out. Then I was talking to someone who said he had watched four or five shows the first week and then stopped. He said he didn't remember how boring it was. It was a camp show for its era, coming off the James Bond spy craze, but it's pretty awful in the '80s."

Few complain about black and white programming, however, although all report that pristine one-inch transfers are crucial. "The Munsters looks better today than it did originally," says Bell, "and Topper looked terrible. It was scratchy and seemed old." Some even say that black and white works to certain series' advantage. "World War II was a black and white war," says Rosenburgh. "I think Combat in black and white just looks more realistic." Nonetheless, Gabbert says he stripped the 26 color Combats during a sweeps period and "they did better than the black and whites. I usually mix black and white U.N.C.L.E.s in with the color ones." Harlan Reams, now general manager of KAUT-TV Oklahoma City, says he preferred using the black and white Andy Griffiths when he was running KSAS-TV in Wichita, Kan., simply because "they were funnier." And Zaleski notes that I Love Lucy, in monochrome, is still going strong, while "you can't give away" The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy, both in color.

The chief drawback to black and white is one of image and perception. "It gives us the image indies are trying to get away from, that of being a rerun station," notes Reams. ''At least with color series, even though they're reruns, there's the illusion that it's newer."

"That is a danger if you rely on these shows too much," agrees Petry's Fentress. "You don't want to give your station that 'old' look. If you keep evergreens as part of your inventory for marginal time periods, fine. But if an independent uses them as a primary source, it's in trouble."

In the end, though, it's not the age, but the quality of the show. "It's hard to overpay for a successful program," notes Martin Brantley, president and general manager of Portland's KPTV, "but you almost always overpay for one that doesn't work." Most agree that evergreens, in general, are an efficient buy for stations in need of programming. "Many different time periods have opened up now," says Paramount's Meidel. "Many stations are doing 24-hour programming and a lot need shows like Mission: Impossible, Mannix and The Untouchables for late night. And although we try to maximize revenues, some of these shows are priced quite inexpensively. If a series is running in late night, the revenue base is not there to justify high rates."

''A lot of [syndicators] are willing to do a six-month deal:' observes Bell. "Some will offer limited runs or will put money behind the promotion. If it works, they'll restructure the deal for a longer term. They get what they want-numbers they can sell-and we get a shorter commitment." Brantley seconds that notion:  "Syndicators are willing to listen to different time periods, like daytime, which may not generate a whole lot of money. They're more willing to make deals to get this old product off the shelves."

"I think evergreens are wonderful," notes Rosenburgh. "They are highly promotable, usually with a fan following. You're not gambling a tremendous amount of money, and their appeal lasts forever." Concludes Hank Price, president and general manager of WFMY:  "They're just old. And I figure, no one gets tired of Shakespeare and he's even older than Andy Griffith."