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Why originality is overrated when it comes to TV -- and business

It's probably been said before, but originality is overrated. Especially on TV.

I've probably said it before, but originality is overrated.

Which is why the most valuable tool in any enterprise's development arsenal just may be a feather duster, to make presentable something it already has and consumers already know.

This is true for nearly all established businesses, but few as transparently as television, where the penchant for recycling material — sometimes in thrillingly new ways, but often without so much as a new theme song — recalls Native Americans' famous knack for making use of every part of a buffalo.

Even the dung was fuel for fire. (So sometimes it's exactly like TV. Ba-dum-pum.)

We could talk about how it's far less risky and expensive for Deerfield-based Mondelez to come up with new variations on Oreos than develop and market a wholly new cookie. Or we can count the number of talent contests, variations on "NCIS" and Dick Wolf, Shonda Rhimes and Chuck Lorre shows there are on the broadcast networks.

All different. But all same enough.

The easiest thing in the world to sell people is what they already know and like, right up until the moment they grow tired of it. Convincing them to buy into something they have no idea they need or want, let alone like, or the answer to a problem they haven't considered, let alone confronted, is the work of visionaries, missionaries, martyrs and well-financed startups.

The completely new concept, perspective, way of doing things — they're absolutely vital to advance mankind, commerce and art. It's important, as Robert Kennedy said, to dream of things that never were and ask why not. But most, looking at things the way they are, will simply ask, Why?

It is fashionable to talk about the startup mentality of building on failure and introducing disruption to industries. All good stuff. But you know what's also good? Not failing. Every outfit needs to take some chances to make sure it's not left behind. There are zero sure things out there, so it's important to vary the risks you take. With something people know, you may have to explain why but not what.

You can't use Google to find something you don't even know you're interested in, find the answer to a question you hadn't known enough to ask, buy something you had no reason to think you needed.

I got a pitch the other day from a company reviving Eberhard Faber's old Blackwing 602, said to have been the pencil of choice of John Steinbeck, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Chuck Jones. Yes. A pencil. But hey why not? You know them. You loved them. Everything was simpler in your life when you used pencils, wasn't it?

The sweet spot is to be cutting edge, but not cut off. You want to be ahead of the curve but not ahead of your time. When something brilliantly innovative does break through, it makes the comfortable seem worn-out overnight (at least until beatified with retro status). But that happens rarely enough that it's smart to hedge one's bets.

So the typical TV lineup is something old, something new, something bold and something well-chewed. For every groundbreaking series, there are a half-dozen shows anchored in safe, familiar territory. This is an era of some of the most daring TV ever, yet it's buoyed by a great deal that isn't at all, whether remakes, spinoffs or barely altered concepts and execution.

So the current TV development slate looks like a Baby Boomer's Netflix queue.

We're a long way from most decisions on what goes to series and what doesn't. Yet reportedly in the pipeline are projects based on the movies "American Gigolo," "Bachelor Party," "Ghost," "Terminator," "Rush Hour," "Monster in Law," "Hitch," "The Truman Show," "The Illusionist," "In Good Company," "Real Genius" and "Minority Report."

Never mind series remakes that might include "In the Heat of the Night," "Bewitched," "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," and "Lost in Space." And then there's Neil Patrick Harris' bid to revive the long-dormant genre of variety show for NBC, using a template from British TV.

"In a perfect world," Harris told Charlie Rose on PBS, "in five years, I'm Ed Sullivan."

But presumably alive and well. Ditto for TV variety.

Fox has been thinking about special projects involving "Grease" and "Big." "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry is tinkering with a non-musical "Phantom of the Opera." "Frankenstein" is another possibility.

Discussion of an NBC series based on "Say Anything" was snuffed when writer and director Cameron Crowe and film star John Cusack voiced their disapproval. The families of the late John Hughes and John Candy have indicated they would wish the same at ABC for a new "Uncle Buck," which CBS unsuccessfully converted to a TV series in 1990.

"Buck" was one of eight series adapted from movies that hit the air that year, along with "Ferris Bueller," "Adventures of the Black Stallion," "Working Girl," "Swamp Thing," "The Outsiders," "Bagdad Cafe" and "Parenthood," which lasted just three months on NBC despite a young Leonardo DiCaprio in the cast.

A newer "Parenthood," launched in 2010, is one of the best shows on NBC today and stands as proof that just because it's an old or failed idea doesn't make it a bad one. An old property can be made new with the right creative juice. That this iteration is in its final season merely resets the clock for its next potential comeback.

It's one thing to read that Fox is developing a series called "Riverdale," based on the "Archie" comics. It's another to read "Archie" Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa tell comicbookresources.com that: "Something we talk a lot about is: Imagine if Riverdale were like 'Twin Peaks,' and was a really weird small town."

Oh, yeah. Look for a "Twin Peaks" revival in 2016 on Showtime.

This sort of thing is practically built into TV's DNA. The invaluable pre-Internet reference guide of Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," tracks the practice all the way back to 1949, when three shows had movie ties. Between 1964 and '65, alone, a dozen prime-time series based on feature films made their debut — including "Flipper," "Peyton Place" and "Gidget" — and there were only three networks then.

So not even this re-tread thing is new or original.

Steve Jobs could talk about how people didn't know what they wanted until he gave it to them. But just as surely as not everyone is Steve Jobs, that doesn't always work.

We're ineffably drawn to brands and products to which we've grown accustomed and comfortable. We may find we don't like them the way we once did, but that's another matter.

If we get bored watching TV, we can always go to the supermarket and count the number of different Oreos products.

philrosenthal@tribune.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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