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by Cary O'Dell

Classic TV show turn onWhat was once an infamous list of one (ABC’s “Turn-On” from 1969, yanked after just one airing) has now become a far more frequent phenomenon as “The Hasselhoffs” and others can attest. And considering cable TV’s ability to churn through hits (today’s “Pawn Stars” can become tomorrow’s “Trading Spaces” surprisingly quickly). And considering how supposedly short all of our attention spans have become due to remote controls and 140 characters or less communication, one thing about current TV remains surprisingly true. That is, how enduring and long-running some shows (many still “hits”) have become.

Classic TV show Judge JudyBefore signing off, “Oprah,” as no doubt everyone knows by now, was on the air for a quarter of a century. Perhaps more surprisingly is the fact that this year marks the 20th anniversaries for two of her brethren--“Maury Povich” and “Jerry Springer.” “Judge Judy” meanwhile is entering her 16th year and has just renewed her contract through 2016; that’s a lot of tough justice. Still, this trio of talkers are newbies compared to such perennials as “Wheel of Fortune,” on the air since 1981, and “Jeopardy” that’s been on since 1984. That’s 30 and 27 years respectively. Meanwhile, “Entertainment Tonight” has also been on the air for 30 years. It also debuted in 1981 and has the majority of its run co-hosted by Mary Hart. “ET’s” clones, “Extra” and “Access Hollywood” are also proving to have remarkable shelf lives; “Extra’s” been on for 17 years, “Access” for 15.

GunsmokeSurprisingly as well, despite the supposedly more cut-throat world of prime time TV, and the fragmenting of audiences away from network TV, many shows are also enjoying gravity-defying lifespans. At one time, future runs the length of a “Gunsmoke,” two decades on the air, a “Danny Thomas Show,” 18 years on the air, or the original “Hawaii 5-0,” 12 years on air, seemed all but impossible. But tell that to “The Simpsons” who, next year, begins its 22nd year! The ageless quality of its stars might make Homer and Bart and company a special case, one that is also being replicated with “South Park,” on the air since 1997. But, if that is true, then how do you explain that the original “Law & Order” made it to 19 seasons? Even CBS’ “CSI,” which still seems “newer,” will be starting its 11th season this fall.

Other long-runners include: “COPS,” which debuted 1989; “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which debuted as a series in 1990; MTV’s “The Real World,” begun 1992; and, until its recent (temporary?) cancellation, “America’s Most Wanted,” which first bowed in 1988. Then, of course, there are the true stalwarts “60 Minutes,” on the air since 1968, and “20/20” which has been around since 1978. (Of course the grand-daddy of all long-enduring shows is Sunday morning’s “Meet the Press” which first aired in 1947, hosted by Martha Rountree.)

The truncated runs of some reality shows has meant that they stack up “seasons” at an alarming rate. Still, their endurance shouldn’t be diminished. We have so far crowned 10 “American Idols” since that show debuted in 2002 and 22 “ultimate” survivors on CBS’ “Survivor” since it debuted in 2000. (That means we have also had almost as many winners of “Big Brother,” “Survivor’s” lower-rent cousin, since that show began shortly thereafter.) And we are up to the 18th “cycle” of Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model.”

Classic TV show Judge JudyObviously, there is a key to creating a show with epic run potential. It’s finding a successful formula with enough variants, whether its cast members or contestants, to keep it fresh and new year after year. Even “Law & Order” had its set template despite being primetime fiction. Its procedural nature allowed it to thrive despite an extraordinarily high turnover in its starring cast, similar to longtime NBC counterpart “ER” that was on for 15 years. Conversely, though, Kelsey Grammar’s “Fraiser” was a truly unusual enduring series, on the air for 11 seasons (1993-2004), with its entire core cast around for the full duration.

Despite these success stories, the semi-recent cancellations of shows like “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” and, soon, “All My Children” has underscored the fact that no program, not even bone fide institutions, are invulnerable from the programmer’s ax and shifting viewer preferences. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” began 1952, and Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train,” began 1971, each learned that hard lesson; “Bandstand” ended in 1989 and “Train” in 2006.

Still, the often under-the-radar endurance of so many shows on primetime (and even more in other timeslots; consider “Letterman,” “This Old House,” “Saturday Night Live,” and “The Price is Right,” among others) alters our common concept of audience affection and preference. In the end, viewers may not all be a sea of fickle channel-flippers, each suffering from chronic ADD, everyone voracious for something “new.” While there is, no doubt, a comfort level to some of these old stand-bys, it is also quite possible that they endure because they are still viable works, in short, still entertaining to the audience that watches them.


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