With Reboots, Viewers Want to Relive the '90s

Television reboots, usually a safe bet for broadcasters, give insight into public nostalgia
October 16, 2018 at 12:01 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • In survey, “Home Improvement” garnered the most support for a reboot, with 55% saying they’d be likely to watch; 52% would watch a “Friends” reboot.

  • 75% want television reboots to feature original cast and a plot that picks up right where the original left off.

Americans want to bring the '90s back to television, according to the latest Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult survey, with viewers craving reboots of popular shows from that decade, including “Home Improvement,” “Friends” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

The recent boom in television reboots -- from CBS’ “Magnum P.I.” to The CW’s “Charmed” -- offers traditional broadcasters a built-in fan base and helps them compete in an increasingly fragmented media landscape, experts said.

Yearning for such reboots may also signal a public that is nostalgic not only for familiar characters and plots but, in some cases, for traditional cultural roles.

A new version of ABC’s “Home Improvement” garnered the most support among a list of 30 shows that had previously aired, including rumored reboots such as “The Nanny” and scheduled ones such as CBS’ “Murphy Brown.”

Fifty-five percent of the 2,201 respondents in the Oct. 4-8 survey said they’d be likely to watch Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor’s return to television, and roughly half said they would also tune in to new versions of “Gilligan’s Island” (47 percent) and “Seinfeld” (46 percent).

“The reboot boom is, at least in part, a result of the rapid proliferation of platforms and channels,” said Julia Leyda, an associate professor of film studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and an expert in cinema and television studies.

The industry is producing more content than ever. The total number of scripted shows reached a high of 487 in 2017, according to data from FX Networks shared at the Television Critics Association.

Reboots are often safe bets for traditional broadcasters such as NBC and ABC, said Racquel Gates, an assistant professor in film and media studies at the CUNY-College of Staten Island.

She said broadcasters’ advertising models rely more on selling larger, less niche groups to marketers than do competing streaming services such as Netflix Inc. and Hulu LLC, which earn most of their revenue from subscriptions.

But the boost may not last: An analysis of Nielsen viewership from pop culture site Decider, which is operated by the New York Post, shows that a reboot’s initial spark dies off within its first season as the interest from “nostalgia” viewers plummets.

The percentage who said they’d tune into even the most-popular reboots is still small compared to their original audiences. Three-quarters of the public has seen “Home Improvement,” and 72 percent have watched “Friends” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Recycling ideas is not a new concept for the entertainment industry, nor is syndication to keep those good ideas bringing in money. In fact, some who like the idea of the rebooted shows likely didn’t catch their initial airing.

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is a good example. It’s the third most-requested reboot in the survey, and the first among young adults, or those ages 18-29. But even the oldest in that age group would have been just 7 years old when Will Smith’s show went off the air in 1996 after a nearly six-year run. That suggests the show gained fans in its post-airing syndicated life.

In contrast, young adults are less likely to have seen “Home Improvement,” the most requested reboot, than the public overall (57 percent vs. 75 percent). Seventy-two percent of both young people and all adults have seen “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

The sitcom in many ways harks back to traditional depictions of white masculinity -- with its macho and low-brow humorous male protagonist -- which may contribute to its appeal among some groups, Gates said.

Some adults, including the more conservative Americans who helped elect President Donald Trump into office, could be nostalgic for this sort of programming that depicts more traditional family and gender roles, she said. Polling on cultural changes confirms part of this nostalgia: A survey from 2016 found 72 percent of Trump supporters said American society had changed for the worse since the 1950s, versus 51 percent of Americans as a whole.

Conservative Americans and those with favorable views of Trump are more likely to say they’ll tune into “Home Improvement” 2.0 than adults as a whole: 64 percent and 63 percent respectively say they would watch.

Lead actor Tim Allen has also stepped forward as a pro-Trump voice in Hollywood, an industry that is perceived as more liberal than the country overall, and blamed his conservatism when ABC canceled his show “Last Man Standing.” ABC had said his political beliefs had nothing to do with the decision.

The show was later picked up by Fox. ABC and NBC, which originally aired “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” did not respond to requests for comment.

And not all reboots are treated equally: The poll suggests the key to a successful reboot is one that’s hard to attain: staffing the original cast of characters.

When asked whether they prefer the original or a new cast and plotline, three-quarters of respondents said an original cast with a plotline that picks up right where the original show ended would make them more likely to watch. Another 63 percent said they’re likely to watch if the reboot has a new storyline but includes the original cast.

A headshot photograph of Joanna Piacenza
Joanna Piacenza
Head of Industry Analysis

Joanna Piacenza leads Industry Analysis at Morning Consult. Prior to joining Morning Consult, she was an editor at the Public Religion Research Institute, conducting research at the intersection of religion, culture and public policy. Joanna graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications and holds a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Colorado Boulder. For speaking opportunities and booking requests, please email [email protected].

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