Riding A New Wave Of Nostalgia

Tony Maciulis is a CBS News producer based in New York.
(AP Photo/ABC, Kelsey McNeal)
Mitzi Gaynor, now there's a blast from the past.

I found a YouTube clip of her singing Peter Allen's hit "Everything Old Is New Again," on a variety show special in 1976. It was called "Mitzi…Roarin' in the 20's." I guess "Mitzi with a Z" seemed too derivative.

For years, the only place to see a classic piece of television camp like that was either online or on a late night infomercial advertising a DVD series. But now, there's no need to remember when. Everything old … you get the picture.

Those splashy '70s-style variety shows are making a comeback. NBC gave an hour to Rosie O'Donnell recently, and Ellen DeGeneres has had two primetime "Really Big Shows." (Or, as Ed Sullivan would pronounce it, "Really Big Shoes.") There's even a rumor floating around online that brooding crooner John Mayer may soon have a variety show, although I can't see him wearing Scarlett O'Hara's curtain rods for a "Gone with the Wind" send up.

If there was any doubt that a trend was in the making, the Peacock network settled the score today. The network announced that "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno will move into the 10 p.m. time slot, five days a week.

Leno's show may not technically be a variety show, but it does fit the description. There's comedy, a host monologue, politics and live music. Add one more guy and a banjo and you've got "The Smothers Brothers!"

The wave of nostalgia is not an accident, of course. The stagnant economy of the '70s made variety shows attractive. They are far less expensive to produce than big primetime dramas. As networks face a tough year ahead, that's about all the convincing they need to bring on a retro wave.

And if done correctly, this little experiment could blossom into a new age for TV.

"Dancing with the Stars" and "American Idol" are big hits because everybody can watch them – grandmas, teenagers and all the folks in between. Shucks, they could even all watch together, you know, like a family.

"The Carol Burnett Show" and "Hee Haw" were appointment-viewing for families all across America in the 1970s. Sure, there were fewer options on the tube, but there's more to it than that.

If television programming continues to fragment audiences into niches, the days of the network "hit" are over.

There was an interesting case on "Boston Legal" last week. Betty White guest-starred as a woman suing a television network for its lousy programming. Her point – it's old people who are home watching TV, so why don't advertisers and TV executives program for them?

By 2010, about 45 percent of the U.S. population will be older than 50, and that population pumps about $2 trillion in the economy.

Mitzi Gaynor's not likely to shake her groove thing on network TV anytime soon, but all those folks who remember her are still sitting there watching – with their children and grandchildren.

Oh, and they are watching the commercials, too.