Does the Death of Syndicated Reruns Mean the End of Catchphrases and Cult Shows?

Spoilers

Here’s an experiment that you can try in just about any town in America:

Walk into a public place that’s full of adults between the ages of 35 and 50 and shout the simple two-word phrase “dental plan!”

There’s a very strong chance that some sophisticated barfly will respond — almost involuntarily — with “Lisa needs braces!”

If you fall into the demographic described above, then we probably don’t need to tell you that those quotes are from The Simpsons.

Specifically, they’re from a 1993 episode entitled “Last Exit to Springfield,” which many fans consider to be one of the series’ finest.

The Simpsons, of course, is widely agreed to be one of the sharpest and most intelligent sitcoms — animated or otherwise — in TV history.

Related: The Age of Nostalgia: Why Young Audiences Are Seeking Out Old TV

So it’s not surprising that it’s widely quoted by fans.

But how is it that so many grownups have memorized so much dialogue from a show that peaked around the time that they were in middle school?

(The question of when, exactly, The Simpsons began its long decline is a matter that’s hotly debated among diehards, but all discerning Springfield obsessives concur that the show’s zombie era can be measured in decades, not years.)

The Ned Zone - The Simpsons

The Sacred Bond of Syndication

Sure, it’s possible that the random pub patron who responded to your cue has a steel trap memory, and he accurately remembers dialogue from every show he’s ever seen.

Or maybe in a stunning coincidence, he just happened to have watched that particular episode last night on Disney+.

What’s more likely, however, is that like millions of other millennials and Gen Xers, our hypothetical boozer (let’s call him Barney) grew up in a home where both parents worked and entertainment options were limited.

Thus, he would return home from school and tune in to one of the networks that reliably aired syndicated reruns, which were purchased on the cheap and aired as many times as the local network affiliates saw fit.

Young Barney might while away several hours in this fashion, chuckling at Bart’s hijinks and unwittingly memorizing hundreds of lines of dialogue.

The ritual would continue until an adult turned to the evening news or called him to the dinner table (equally unappealing options for the average fifth grader).

Seinfeld Finale Scene

In some markets, The Simpsons would air multiple times every evening.

And there were just as many reruns of Cheers and Seinfeld — although the average preteen probably had little interest in M*A*S*H, which was also a common offering in those days.

The result was the sort of shared cultural experience that’s hard to come by these days.

Related: Streaming is Dominated by a Handful of Shows. Is There Any Room For Smaller Players?

Sure, syndicated reruns still exist, but your average middle-class American kid is flooded with more appealing options than an episode of The Big Bang Theory that first aired when George W. Bush was in office.

And yes, younger generations have their shared references and inside jokes (millions of parents who are currently raising Gen Z kids might have spent hours trying to figure out what a “skibidi toilet” is).

A Generational Divide

But the level of knowledge that has enabled generations of Simpsons fans to essentially communicate in a secret language for their entire adult lives can only come from the sort of religious repetition that syndication seemed to encourage.

Survival of the Fattest - The Simpsons

Obviously, The Simpsons is the sort of cultural juggernaut that only comes around about once a decade.

But what about shows that found a second life through endless reruns?

These could be forgotten series of yesteryear or shows that were still cranking out new episodes, but that might have never entered the consciousness of the mainstream public if they hadn’t been rerun during those desolate hours when there was simply nothing else on.

Saved By the Bell, for example, aired new episodes on Saturday mornings, but ask any millennial, and they’ll tell you that Screech was an after-school fixture.

Is Streaming the New Syndication?

Nowadays, of course, many shows get a second life via Netflix.

But can content from a subscription streaming service ever have the same populist appeal as a show that was simply there, every day, sometimes multiple times a day, for free?

Mike Makes a Great Point - Suits Season 9 Episode 9

Gen Z has discovered Suits, but will they ever rewatch the same episodes ad nauseam, to the point that they can recite entire scenes from memory?

Probably not! And that’s almost certainly a good thing!

The End of an Era

We’re not bemoaning the declining influence of syndicated TV.

Related: Suits, Ted Lasso, and the Rise of Comfort TV: Is the Desire For Easy Viewing Creating a Barren Streaming Landscape?

There are probably much better ways to spend one’s time than rewatching a show that’s not even a particular favorite just because some guy at your local CBS station decided it would be a good fit for the vacant 5:30 slot.

We’re merely observing that this is one more way in which the monoculture that led to so many shared touchstones and so much common ground is officially a thing of the past.

These days, we all carry little supercomputers in our pockets, and our cultural experiences are uniquely tailored to our specific tastes.

Documentary Crime - The Simpsons

It’s the sort of thing our ancestors would dream about, and for the most part, it’s pretty great.

But there are some drawbacks, too — and one of them is that the list of acceptable small talk topics is shorter than ever.

Look, networks will always need content with which to fill in those dead time-slots around the dinner hour, and they’ll always be reluctant to do it with expensive, original content.

But very few young people are flocking to their sets at the same time to bask in Homer’s latest get-rich-quick scheme.

And as a result, in 20 years, those kids won’t be able to instantly forge a lasting bond with a stranger just by pointing out that you don’t win friends with salad.

What do you think, TV fanatics? Do you ever feel nostalgic for the TV trends of the past, or are we getting all misty-eyed over nothing? Hit the comments section to share your thoughts!

Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.

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