Old television shows win new audiences with their view of an earlier, easier time


PHILADELPHIA -- You are Opie with a fishing pole slung over your shoulder, whistling with your dad, Sheriff Andy, in Mayberry.

You are Lucy in love with Ricky.

A doctor in Hawkeye's "swamp" tent on "M*A*S*H." A member of "The Brady Bunch." A private in the cavalry on "F Troop."

You live in the world of classic television, alongside characters who have lived on longer than their creators ever dreamed.

If there's any doubt that the old shows can be just as meaningful for viewers as the newer ones, consider the mailing list of a television novelty-item store at the Willow Grove Mall in Willow Grove, Pa.

The store has been open only a matter of months, and already the list has swelled to 1,700 names, mystifying even the store's owner, Robert Weinstein.

TV viewers, Mr. Weinstein says, especially younger viewers for whom the old shows are new, can relate to the old shows, laugh at them, even fantasize about them. They see in these shows a world much like their own but far simpler, where problems are small and invariably resolved between commercials.

And older folks, too, can't get enough of the endless reruns on TBS and Nick at Nite.

"People ask me all the time, 'Are you surprised?' And to tell you the truth, we're not," says Paul Ward, marketing director for Nick at Nite, which is seen in 67 million households.

"We always believed in these shows. They are classic old television, and there is a very strong passion about the shows themselves."

Mr. Weinstein, the store owner, says, " 'The Brady Bunch' is probably my biggest seller now, and it's all kids, not older people." One section of the store includes several books, such as "Growing Up Brady," "Brady Mania" and "The Brady Bunch Book."

Mr. Weinstein, a former news producer/director in Philadelphia, has his own theory why the old shows hit home:

"In the current shows, it's families ripping each other up, razzing each other. You turn on any sitcom, and it's the kid calling the father a stupid idiot, or it's the wife making fun of the kid. It's very demeaning, the way families relate to each other on modern television shows."

Nick at Nite's Larry Jones adds, "Back in those days, you didn't have a lot of [audience] research, and you had people who were incredibly talented, working their guts out.

"They had the time to try different things out. And there wasn't huge pressure to deliver the ratings in the first season or the first few weeks of a premiere. The creative process was very different back then."

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