How Hollywood recycles content you love

Rob Long explains how the entertainment industry repackages themes in sitcoms

A still from the hit TV show 'Full House' which ran for 8 seasons between September 22, 1987 - May 23, 1995. Courtesy ABC
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If you’re about 40 years old (or, tragically, even older) you may not need the following history lesson, but if you’re younger, here’s some background.

In the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, one of the most popular comedies on American television was Full House, a silly, slight family sitcom about a widowed father raising his children with his best friend and his brother-in-law. They all lived together in a charming, rambling Victorian-era townhouse in San Francisco.

Most of the episodes ended up with hugs and a lesson about life, with lots of over-amplified audience laughs and reactions piped in, in case the home audience needed a little guidance. The show was about as shameless as it could be: cute kids, puppies, lots of “aww” moments – every trick in the sitcom hack writer’s toolbox was trotted out, and every episode had a treacley, insufferable finish. The show was a worldwide smash hit.

The trouble with a family show, of course, is that children are involved. Children have an inconvenient habit of getting older and growing taller. The adorable tyke of Season One or Season Two of a sitcom quickly becomes the gawky, awkward teenager of Seasons Eight and Nine, so like everything else, Full House ran its course and was taken off the air in 1995, after almost 200 episodes – or the equivalent of 100 hours – depicting the happy, sappy life of the Tanner family. And there it remained, in reruns on afternoon television and in DVD box sets, until Netflix, the streaming video juggernaut, made the show available on its service.

Full House was a hit on Netflix, too. But the difference between Netflix and almost every other studio or network is that the people who run a web-based streaming service come, primarily, from the world of technology. They live and thrive in an industry in which everything is possible and every problem is what my friends in Silicon Valley call “an engineering challenge”. In other words, in Hollywood when the cast of a family show gets too old, they cancel the show and move on. In the world of technology and web-based streaming, they come up with what engineers call “a work-around”.

Netflix is a data-driven business. They know what you’re watching and when, how you’re browsing through the offerings and what movies and shows you watch repeatedly, shut off mid-way, or put on your list of favourites. They knew – with as much certainty as anyone in the entertainment business knows anything – that Full House was such a popular hit that it was worth figuring out how to bring the show back into production. They needed to engineer a work-around to get past the problem that the youngest members of the cast were now nearly 40, but that didn’t seem too difficult.

Here’s the way traditional Hollywood brains would solve this problem: they’d think about the “themes” and “relationships” that the old show depicted, then attempt to distill and repackage those subtleties in a new and contemporary way.

Netflix chose a more direct, more engineering-centered path: they simply called up the actors and writers of the old series – some of whom, apparently, had gone on to other careers in far-flung parts of the country – and told them to come back to work.

The result, something called, with a charming lack of creativity or spin, Fuller House, debuted on Netflix last year. It was Full House but older. The kids now have kids of their own, the cast has been reassembled, and the show is still about the sappy, happy Tanner family living in the exact same Victorian-era townhouse in San Francisco. Episodes end in hugs and “awws” and it’s the same bag of tricks all over again. Netflix bet that fans of Full House would embrace the new era, and seamlessly click from the series with the big hair and acid-washed denim to the new series with hipster haircuts and skinny jeans.

They were right. Last week, a new audience measurement technique revealed that Fuller House is one of the most popular television shows anywhere, on cable or satellite or streaming. It’s bigger than The Walking Dead, which is the most popular one-hour television show in America.

In the entertainment business, when something is over we toss it out. But the engineers know better. Full House is to Fuller House as the original iPod is to the latest iPhone – it’s recognisably similar, has a familiar look and feel, but the newer one is sleeker and faster and has more features. If you liked your iPod, you’ll love your iPhone. If you liked Full House, you’ll love Fuller House.

For numbers-obsessed engineers, the Netflix crew really understands, Hollywood. If only Hollywood understood them back.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl