Season one of Netflix hit series Stranger Things opens up with four boys, around 10- to 12-years-old, riding their bikes on a hill backlit by the moon. You can see the wide-brimmed baseball caps, the Huffy-esque wheels, the blinking bike headlights and the thick, longish haircuts – a look and kid dress code emblematic of the 1980s set in a scene that is a tacit acknowledgement of the “feel” of kid adventure movies that released at that time.
As these boys become involved in uncovering a sinister plot that’s a mix of E.T. and It, their story brings the 80s back to life. From a scene featuring The Clash on vinyl to the big sister who makes out with a boy while wearing her secretary blouse, the Emmy-winning series plants a well-written story inside the memories of childhood for Generation X and older Millennials. And they are watching in droves.
It would seem, great TV writing aside, that nostalgia streams like hotcakes.
“Networks are seeing it is harder and harder to have a program break through the clutter so they are using reboots and spin-offs to kind of ‘cheat’ awareness with the thinking that people are more likely to tune into something they are familiar with instead of something completely original,” says Thomas Kelley, a director with Ipsos Connect. Kelley oversees research on TV shows and streaming services. “Taking a look at the data for some of those titles that have an increased awareness due to overall familiarity of their title or subject matter, we see that the average awareness among people aged 18 to 49 for such a show was 27.5%, while the norm for awareness of all shows tracked was 17.4%.”
In other words, shows that help a viewer recall a show of old, or a sense of old are more likely to be recognized and remembered by audiences surveyed. And that’s important in a TV landscape that is chock full of on-demand, binge-worthy shows tailored to every fetish and inclination. Love sharks? You can watch Sharknado. Love gospel plays? You can watch Tyler Perry all day every day. In love with the wholesome shows of the 80s? You can watch The Muppets, Full House, or the update Fuller House, all day long.
Not that all fully original shows are flops, but many of these throwback series tend to do well. Of all the shows created in the last three years, Ipsos experts count around 130 that are tied to an existing property, whether that property be a remake of an older show (think: MTV’s Fear Factor or CBS’ Swat), a show based on an 80s movie such as Lethal Weapon or the before-mentioned continuations of older, popular, shows such as X Files and Twin Peaks.
And if you were a kid or a teen at that time Twin Peaks was all the rage, or you ever dreamed of being on the original Fear Factor with your college friends, then it is possible that these reboots dredge up good memories for you.
Researchers know this “good feeling” is part of “sense memory,” a term used to describe how memories impact your senses. If a particular sense memory can carry a consumer to a moment in time in childhood, and the consumer wants to stay and watch or buy or share, then a manufacturer has done a good thing. Half of the marketing is done for you before you’ve even spent a dollar, says Maureen Evans, a sensory expert and senior vice president of Ipsos Marketing.
All that said, a hit TV show or series must still have all the other key elements. Nostalgia alone won’t sell it. Take Dynasty, for example. The CW reboot got approved for a second season while the TV version of 90’s Tom Cruise blockbuster Minority Report was only embraced by, well, a minority and got cancelled. Meanwhile Stranger Things, which isn’t based upon any particular film, but feels a lot like 80s hits The Goonies, Amazing Stories and The Lost Boys, beats even uber popular The Walking Dead when it comes to viewer awareness, says Kelley.
“I can tell you that about 20% of our respondents aged 13 to 64 mentioned the program in our unaided awareness question– one of the highest marks I have seen in the six plus years working on this product,” says Kelley. “The Walking Dead usually dominated the chart this time of the year but fell to number two by a wide gap with 21% for Stranger Things compared to 9% for The Walking Dead.”
Netflix and Hulu in particular have gone full nostalgia and reaped the benefits from it. The services don’t release audience figures, but by banking on period pieces such as Stranger Things and The Golden Girls, they are finding new audiences. And the reasons are simple, according to Lisa Holme, Hulu’s Vice president of content acquisition.
“Most people also want TV to be entertaining and not feel like work,” Holme told the LA Times. “Nostalgia programming is [like] comfort food.”