A Lingering Bell Rings in ‘Saved by the Bell’

[26 May 2011]

By Sean McCarthy

Ted Turner has to be proud of his superstation network TBS. In the ‘80s, the network was very much like other cable networks in that the primary programming material came from old TV series. For millions of Gen-Xers, Superstation TBS acted as sort of an afterschool babysitter with reruns of The Flinstones and The Brady Bunch usually running from when school got out until around dinner time save the occasional Braves baseball game – much to the disappointment of every kid who wasn’t a Braves fan.

In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, TBS grew more ambitious like similar cable channels. Reruns of yesteryear (Addams Family, Leave It to Beaver) were replaced with more contemporary reruns (see Friends). Original content soon found its way into programming with shows like My Boys and Tyler Perry sitcoms. Last year, the network showed it could hang with the big boys by recruiting Conan O’Brien to its late night slot (at the expense of George Lopez, who was bumped an hour).

So far, TBS shown it can change with its audience. Primetime reruns of Family Guy and The Office have replaced reruns of Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond in prime-time, but the network has had far less success trying to alter its morning formula. Much like a smoking or junk food addiction, TBS seems to have facilitated a habit for a few hundred thousand viewers every day: two hours of Saved By the Bell reruns.

As Chuck Klosterman stated in his famous essay “Being Zach Morris” in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Saved By the Bell is not a great show by any stretch. In fact, if you were to compare the show to the most popular teen-oriented show today, Glee, most of the protagonists in Saved by the Bell would be depicted as the enemies. While Glee‘s cast at least tries to embody the high school outcast mold, the Saved by Bell gang represent the ruling class in almost a tyrannical way. Keep a counter running every time Salter threatens a nerd or when Zach extorts money from a geek and you couldn’t ask for a better pair of villains on Glee today.

In his college years, Klosterman said he watched the show almost 20 times a week. But the viewing experience usually involved him dropping by a neighbor’s house and watching the show passively, much like having your iPod on shuffle while you work or study. He described the experience of watching Saved By the Bell reruns as being in a “parasitic relationship”. He apparently wasn’t alone.

For almost 15 years, Saved By the Bell has been part of the TBS lineup. It’s the only holdout from the station’s earlier era. And any time the station has tried messing with the morning formula, they’ve been met with serious fan backlash. It may even be inaccurate to call it “fan” backlash. For many, watching Saved By the Bell in the morning may be the first thing they do. Because watching the show requires almost zero cognitive ability, the show could easily exist as a gateway between stage 1 sleep and waking up.

Whatever the reason, for almost a decade, people have expressed their resistance to anything less than two hours of the show. The most recent case being petitions posted on Facebook and Twitter pages soon after reruns of Home Improvement cut into the first hour of SBTBreruns. To take the side of those protesting, it’s not like TBS has done any favors with its alternatives, consider the following two replacements:

The Megan Mullally Show

This experiment was doomed from the beginning. If you were to look at the typical Saved by the Bell viewer on TBS in the mornings, chances are 95 percent of them have seen each episode at least 50 times. Whether they genuinely love the show or watch the show as a “hate fix” (such as listening to The Rush Limbaugh show if you’re a non-dittohead), they know the score Zach got on his SAT, how much Slater went for on a date auction and every scathing comment Lisa shoots at Screech. For viewers used to ten years of predictability, the last thing you want to unveil when they wake up is something as unpredictable as a talk show.

Some viewers may treat Saved By the Bell as sort of a filler in their morning TV diet. It may only exist to fill in the gaps between the local traffic and weather reports and Sports Center. Saved By the Bell is a near perfect fit for this purpose. A talk show is not.

Yes, Dear

The Megan Mullally Show proved that early-morning TBS viewers do not like the unpredictable. So for almost a week last fall, programming executives carved into the two-hour SBTB lineup with reruns of Yes, Dear. As for reruns, TBS couldn’t have chosen a worse show.

Mention Saved By the Bell and people who know the show react in a myriad of ways. They laugh at the show’s absurdity, they reminisce about late ‘80s nostalgia, or they react in an anger bordering on violent. But the show elicits a reaction. The same can’t be said for Yes, Dear. It’s a show as forgettable as any of the sitcoms NBC tried to roll out every fall to fill in the gap in their “Must See TV” Thursday lineup. Regardless of how you feel about SBTB, it deserved a better replacement. And while no major announcement was made, after almost a week of Yes, Dear reruns, Saved By the Bell was back in its two-hour time slot.

For almost six months, the two-hour Saved By the Bell block remained static. That changed in early May when reruns of Home Improvement began appearing, cutting into an hour of Saved By the Bell’s lineup. The Facebook campaign went up and more than a few Twitter posts declared “TBS WTF? Where’s #SBTB?” However, if the network is serious about weaning fans off an almost 15-year addiction, they could do worse. Home Improvement may not have anything as comedic as “Jessie’s Song”, but for many Gen-Yers, it at least elicits a memory. Each episode is as formulaic as every Saved by the Bell episode, and requires about as much mental ability as hitting the snooze alarm. As I write this, it looks like TBS may have finally found a ‘gateway’ show. Let’s see if viewers will accept a substitute morning fix.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/141445-a-lingering-bell/