Inside "Solid, Sturdy, Safe" Nick at Nite
"I have every episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show memorized, but I love to watch them again," Cronin says. "I come from a large family in Chicago--eight brothers and sisters--and to this day, we can act out episodes of Dick Van Dyke." Lots of people have an obsessive love for the TV shows they grew up with, but Cronin makes a living sharing his passion for reruns with the American public. He's the guy who decides what classic sitcoms and dramas wind up on Nick at Nite, the cable channel Nickelodeon's prime-time lineup. And as Nick at Nite's senior vice president and general manager, he's constantly reminded that there are millions of other folks out there in TV Land who would rather snuggle up with an episode of I Love Lucy, Taxi, or Bewitched that they've seen a billion times rather than gaze upon E.R.'s bloody realism or endure a "very special" Beverly Hills 90210. "Our position in the TV world is kind of like that of an oldies network," Cronin says. And like radio stations that specialize in oldies, Nick has found that "comfort" entertainment pays handsomely. Nick at Nite's self-described "solid, sturdy, safe" mix of classic sitcoms each evening, combined with its parent channel's daily programming for children, have made it the top-rated 24-hour basic cable channel in the first quarter of this year. Now the channel has recently launched its own record label, and a Nick at Nite on-line network, merchandising, and a line of books, in cooperation with Simon & Schuster, are also in the works. But lots of channels show reruns--sitcoms and dramas and cop shows picked up from the slag heap of syndication and caulked into the daily schedule, in the late mornings before the soap operas begin and in the late afternoon, an alternative for the kiddies to Oprah and Ricki Lake. The difference between Nick at Nite and some local affiliate that runs Charles in Charge or Mr. Belvedere is that at Nick, they think about what they're doing. "We have great debates over what to run," Cronin says. "We have lists of shows that will be available over the next 10 years, and we plan way in advance." And they take it very, very seriously. "TV is escapist," Nick's general manager says, "but it's as big or bigger a part of our cultural heritage than classic movies or classic cars." Ideally, he says, Nick's mix is split as evenly as possible among eras--the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and, in the case of Taxi, the early 80s--and between critically acclaimed shows such as Dick Van Dyke, I Love Lucy, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("the truly timeless classics," as Cronin calls them) and what he calls "pop hits"--shows such as I Dream of Jeannie and Welcome Back, Kotter (which is joining the lineup this summer) that may not have been Emmy winners, but which summed up their time, which now have a certain campy appeal, and which are likely to draw lots of viewers. It would seem to be a dream job for a TV fanatic, the chance to force one's personal taste on an unsuspecting world. But Cronin, who's been at Nick at Nite for seven years, with the last year and a half spent in his current job, notes that the shows most beloved by his staff aren't necessarily the biggest ratings magnets. "The ones that perform best for us were enormous hits when they were new," he says. "Cult hits don't generally do very well." For example, Bewitched (1964-72), which was huge when new (and, Cronin notes, "Put ABC, which was then a new network, on the map"), fares well in the ratings on Nick at Nite. But, Cronin says, "Take, for example, SCTV, which we all loved, which the critics all loved. When we put it on Nick at Nite, it didn't do very well." He also cites Martin Mull's talk-show parody Fernwood 2-Night, which was another example of a cult hit that the channel couldn't quite revive. The network listens to viewers, but not all decisions are made based on their requests. For example, Kotter, now running in three-hour marathon on Fridays, was welcomed back as part of an "internal decision," Cronin says, not due to a groundswell of viewer requests. The show was acquired partly due to John Travolta's Pulp Fiction-fueled career comeback, but also, Cronin says, because the network has found that 70s-era shows draw in a 18-to-34 year-old viewership that's desirable to advertisers. I Love Lucy, however, was added to the schedule last year as the result of countless viewer requests. (Oddly enough, the second most requested show, Cronin claims, is for Petticoat Junction.) Lucy "was on in syndication, but in very few markets," Cronin says. "Also, the episodes were often cut up, and played at odd times." Nick struck new prints from the masters, put it on at its original time of 9 p.m., and presented the Ricardos "uncut and unedited"--sort of a Lucy Unplugged, if you will--for the first time since the shows originally aired in the 50s. In an era of relaxed standards-and-practices departments at the broadcast networks ("censors" to the rest of us), with current series letting a little more of it hang out all the time in an attempt to compete with cable, Nick at Nite's retro lineup provides just about the only place on the dial where young viewers won't spend their evenings being enlightened. Although the largest chunk of Nick at Nite's audience is between the ages of 25 and 35, lots of kids watch with their parents, Cronin says, especially in the 8-to-9 p.m. time slot, which this season the network filled with reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and called "The Magic Hour." "We're creating a whole new generation of Jeannie and Bewitched fans," Cronin says. "Ten years from now, people will ask what shows they loved as kids, and they'll say Jeannie, Bewitched, Lucy ... " Dick Van Dyke has said in the press that his own grandchildren didn't fully appreciate his talents until they saw his early 60s series revived on the cable channel. (In the recent movie Bye Bye Love, a divorced dad groused to his buddies, "Let's face it, our kids are being raised by Nick at Nite.") For the second year in a row, the channel will suspend its usual schedule to hold "Summer Block Parties" through July and August, running back-to-back episodes of a single series each weeknight; this year's schedule is aimed even more than last at parents and kids, with The Munsters (a new lineup addition) on Monday, I Love Lucy on Tuesdays, Bewitched on Wednesdays, I Dream of Jeannie on Thursdays, and Kotter on Fridays. In October, the 1980s police drama Hill Street Blues will be added to the prime-time schedule. And Cronin's network also plans to launch revivals of Rhoda, Phyllis, and The Betty White Show, all spinoffs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show next April; Happy Days will be revived in September of 1996. And there's more in the vaults where those came from. Of current series that are one day destined for rerunhood, Cronin says, "Seinfeld would be a natural for us. Also probably, Fraiser, Home Improvement, Roseanne ... the big hits." But number-one on his wish list is one that's currently in the limbo between contemporary and nostalgic: Cheers. "If we can ever get it out of syndication, it will be a huge hit for us," he says. "You can tell a show is truly classic because not only is it on for many years, not only is it number one for many years, not only does it win Emmys, but when the show goes off the air, the final episode is an event. People watch it together and talk about it afterward. It was like that with M*A*S*H, and it was like that with Cheers." And if new acquisitions force Cronin to move your favorite show off the schedule or to an inconvenient time slot (such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show's move this summer from 9:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., a move that Cronin assures dejected viewers will make "a nice alternative to scary local news"), well, it's just to give another worthy old sitcom a chance to make new fans. "People get upset no matter how we move things," he says. "But moving shows around gives different audiences a chance to see them."