'Lucy' and Other TV Classics Join Families

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Friday night arrives, my seven-year-old son and his 11-year-old sister, both passionate fans of fast-paced, vividly colored computer games and TV shows, rush to the set for their precious weekend TV time.

They find the remote and speed through the channels with a squeal - their show is about to start. The first time this happened, I watched in expectation of the latest, coolest show starring young, hip (or animated) stars. But to my astonishment, the show that consistently settles them in front of the set is none other than "I Love Lucy," in all its black, gray, and white glory. They have since added "Happy Days," "Bewitched," and "I Dream of Jeannie" to their list of must-see TV, all shows that are included in what is no longer called rerun syndication, but "classic TV."

The rising popularity of these decades-old shows is manifested in the expanding outlets for the classic material. Now there are entire cable channels devoted to ensuring that future generations don't miss out on poodle skirts, Eddie Haskell, and Mr. Grant. There's Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite and TV Land, not to mention the Game Show network, which is devoted to preserving "The Newlywed Game," "The Dating Game," and enough golden game shows to fill a 24-hour schedule.

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All this post-prime-time afterlife is creating an intergenerational bonding around TV for the first time in the medium's history: As of July 6, courtesy of TV Land, parents who grew up watching the Beav with their siblings can settle in with their children and do it all over again.

Robert Batscha, president of the Museum of Television and Radio, says this was to be expected. "This is the development of the literature of TV," he observes. He notes that in order for an art form to progress, it must build on its past, and says, "TV has a history. Now, that past is becoming part of our culture just like classic books."

Back with Lucy, I watch as the classic chocolate-factory episode unfolds. My daughter says, "OK, Mom, now the candy's going to speed up and she's going to start jamming it in her mouth," which it does, Lucy does, and my two children both convulse with laughter. I find myself laughing too. Mr. Batscha notes that this intergenerational sharing of culture is also part of the maturing of an artistic medium.

"TV has the common icons of our culture," he muses, observing that these outlets for the classic shows make it possible for us to enjoy sharing all these icons. Now, he adds, we can share Lucy with our children, the way earlier generations shared their favorite books.

I wonder about this as the channel switches to a newer classic-in-the-making that has already found its place on Nick at Nite, "The Wonder Years." I never watched the show in its original TV life. But I find myself being drawn in, and settle in to watch befuddled Fred Savage.

This, says Diane Robina, senior vice-president of programming at TV Land, is why classic TV is so successful. "The networks have abandoned the families," she notes. Classic TV, on the other hand, has a timeless, generation-bridging quality that allows a communal experience - in the way that is nearly impossible with the niche-programming of much of today's shows.

How broadly the story line appeals to families is a key criterion in selecting shows, says Ms. Robina. "We want to find good stories and characters that parents won't be embarrassed or bored to watch with their children," she adds.

The success of the classic programming has taken many by surprise, but none more than the folks at Nick at Nite and TV Land, who weren't prepared for the many letters young viewers have sent addressed to them for Lucille Ball. "They don't know these shows are old," says Robina. "They just know they're good."

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