Can TV's Cult Classics Succeed Decades Later?

The days of neon leg warmers and hair scrunchies may be long gone, but the hit television shows from the 1980s may not be, as some of the top programs from the era continue to show up on this generation's plasma TVs.

So far, NBC has been the only network to relaunch cult classics, first with "Bionic Woman" (the new version dropped the originals "The" from the title) and then followed suit with "American Gladiators." The network is planning to air a new version of "Knight Rider" later this year, too.

With the writers strike still on and the networks having difficulty producing new and popular programming, TV insiders told that reinventing the cult classics and appealing to viewers' sense of nostalgia, may be just what the industry needs.

A Blast From the Past

"Broadcast network television is having the hardest time right now launching new TV," said Ben Grossman, the Los Angeles bureau chief for industry publication Broadcasting & Cable. "It might be smart to launch something with a built-in audience."

"If you can get people who know [the show] and remember it fondly and can get new people to watch, you've got a hit," added Grossman.

"Bionic Woman's" ratings weren't that impressive, and while ratings from "American Gladiators" were significantly better — it was the highest-rated launch of any show this season so far — it's still too early to predict its success, said Grossman.

No, it's not David Hasselhoff and the killer Trans-Am. Actor Justin Bruening and his customized Mustang update "Knight Rider" for its 2008 TV comeback.

"If you're remaking 'Bionic Woman' or 'American Gladiators' you know that at least a certain percentage of people are going to show up and watch out of curiosity and nostalgia," James Hibberd, a senior editor at TVWeek, told

"This is why reality concepts from overseas are so popular, because you have at least some idea that they work," noted Hibberd. "If you're starting something from scratch you have to market the idea in a way that introduces the concept and so then you're rolling the dice because you have no template for success."

Several critics told that NBC's decision to redo the classics is at least partially due to the fact that Ben Silverman, co-chair of NBC Entertainment, is a Generation X-er and may very well share in the nostalgia many have for the television programs they grew up watching.

NBC was unable to be reached for comment.

But not everyone is convinced that shows that flourished more than two decades ago will continue to do so today, and some say that recycling the old content is ignoring the kind of creativity the industry desperately needs.

"It's a lot easier to go with something that you know than to do something innovative," said Tom Lewis, the TV editor for the blog "There is a bit of a cop out [to redoing old programs]."

Unlike the remakes of shows like "Batman," Lewis told that he thought the fault in the recent cult classic revival is that the shows are essentially the same shows transported into a later time period.

TV classics like "Bionic Woman" are being remade in the hopes of attracting nostalgic fans and newcomers.

"Instead of embracing change and innovation the networks and their producers are holding onto drama [and] comedy show concepts and formats that made them big players 40 to 50 years ago," said Lewis.

Can the 'Oldies' Become the 'Goodies,' Again?

Whether redoing programming from previous decades will become a larger trend will depend largely on how successfully the first attempts are, according to TV insiders.

If shows such as "American Gladiators" continue to pull in good ratings, other networks will be eager to jump on the bandwagon of a new business strategy — much like what happened during the reality TV craze.

"If somebody does find a little bit of success then everyone in television will run to copy what works. Look at 'American Idol' and its rip-offs," said Broadcasting & Cable's Grossman.

But nostalgia may not be enough to keep these shows afloat for more than a few weeks, according to Ray Richmond, TV critic and entertainment columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.

"Nostalgia is a very powerful thing," said Richmond. "Everyone thinks everything was cooler way back when."

"And sometimes [shows or films] will come back and they'll be great, but often times they're pale imitations and it's better to leave the past in the past," Richmond added. "You can't always duplicate success."