The Rerun Industry

During the next eight or nine months of its new season, the television industry will be hard at work producing reruns for summers to come. Almost everything was a rerun in the summer just past. The symbol (R) without a date after a program listing does not tell us when the rerun was first shown, but last summer’s offerings were so time honored in some cases as to rival the cave paintings of Lascaux or the murals of a Luxor tomb. Television is piling up its own hoard of old shows, which must soon outnumber Hollywood’s treasured old movies.

The episodic series using the same characters, of avowedly comic purport, is probably the most durable of the reruns. Its abiding strength from week to week is its prime forgettability — not that its steady audience is equipped to remember anything anyhow — so that the novelty of the story line is undiminished, like the fresh spontaneity of the dubbed-in audience laughter, even though the laughter may have been recorded back in the days when the late Sir Harry Lauder was howling out “Stop Your Ticklin’, Jock.” Laughter, however improbable as a reaction to situation comedy, simply does not deteriorate once it is canned and put in storage.

New product names are already bringing out a few new commercials, yet even the latest of these are like something déjà vu, reruns even on their first showing.

Instead of the ill-tempered man screaming at his children (for want of a “stummick” pill), we now have an ill-tempered man trying to outshout, in behalf of a refrigerator, some noisy children who are playing in the kitchen. This actor seeks to convey his humorous awareness that to shout so loudly is really a nuisance, but he goes right on crescendo just the same.

The telephone company continues to string along with the noisy commercial, using the realistic jangling of the telephone bell as the attentiongetter. The earlier use of the bell racket, readers will recall, was to show the harried housewife the benefit of having a wall phone in the kitchen, but in the new commercial the bell betokens an annoying call from some salesman. After the housewife, whose face shows her dread of all telephone calls, has responded to the clamor and picked up the phone, the TV audience is just as jumpy as she is, but the phone company then goes on blandly to advise her (and us) what to do with obscene or nuisance telephone calls — a remedy that the company seems to feel we could never have hit upon by ourselves: hang up.

The ‘67 models have not yet reached the automobile commercials, but it seems reasonable to expect that at least one of them will be using the honking of a horn (at full power) as a blandishment, a sound so unexpected in one’s living room as to irritate even the most hardened TV listener. It is probably too late to raise the question for 1967, but one can’t help wondering all over again why the cheapest car on the market is argued to be a status symbol that will set the whole neighborhood to writhing with envy of its horn-tooting owner.

Sameness is again our portion in the songs and jingles: the choonggum waltz that managed to rhyme fun with gum has shifted into a snappier tempo, but its lyrics are still notable for that timeless infantilism of the medium:

Hi ho, hey hey,
Chew your lit-tle
Troubles a-way!

It is hard to judge when any Superman episode was made, but one thing is plain in what we look at today: Superman is putting on weight. He is jowly, much too bulging, and his run as he gets going for his takeoff is a ponderous gallop. His airspeed doesn’t look to be more than about 20 mph — hardly enough to ruffle his hair and certainly not likely to get him to one criminal hideout after another and back to the Daily Planet in time for a half-hour show with Commercials.

Aside from occasional fragments of Mack Sennett one-reelers, the oldest rerun I happened upon was on an educational station—a trip up a river in New Guinea by an extraordinarily youthful looking Lowell Thomas. The film abounded in unintended comedy, the best of it showing the savages, their ferocious scowls enhanced by war paint, peering through jungle foliage at the intrepid visitors. The natives were undecided, so Thomas’ narration went, whether to do away with the strangers then and there or to come out and be friends, and the camera lingered on them while Thomas explained the perils of the moment. (They finally came out and were friendly. . .)

People at the TV station, when I inquired about the film, first thought that Lowell Thomas, Jr., was the expedition’s leader, but they found on checking a bit further that it was Thomas, Sr. The film dates back to 1930 and has been exhibited off and on for the past thirty-six years.

It was, as our TV announcer would put it, like I say: a reel nice rerun.