The X-Files Tackles Its Toughest Case Yet: Reviving TV Revivals

Fox bets big on Mulder and Scully’s return

Last fall, the broadcast networks bet that the best way to attract viewers was by programming reboots and revivals of popular series and movies. However, Limitless, Minority Report, The Muppets and Heroes Reborn had limited success at reigniting that spark with audiences. Limitless is a hit for CBS. But Fox's Minority Report and NBC's Heroes Reborn won't be returning for Season 2, and ABC is retooling The Muppets in an attempt to win back viewers who were driven away by its more adult tone. Last August, NBC scrapped its straight-to-series revival of '90s sitcom Coach after shooting just one episode.

That's because some networks are bringing brands out of mothballs for all the wrong reasons. "I think reboots are a dangerous thing. I call it programming by feather duster. You dust off an old title and see if it flies; there must be some audience out there for it," said Chris Carter, who is behind this season's most anticipated revival: The X-Files, which reunites stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. "I hate that idea, and I didn't want this to be that. You can't just come back and give it a lick and a polish, as my mom used to say. You've got to give people fresh, original material."

The show's creator said he is doing just that with The X-Files, which returns to Fox Sunday night as a six-episode limited series. Unlike some other failed revivals, "the show still has a lot of life left in it. It's really endless how many X-Files stories you could tell because I always pick up the newspaper, and there's a new X-Files story," said Carter, who hopes to continue it as a limited series going forward, if Duchovny and Anderson's busy schedules allow.

There are even more reboots and revivals on tap for midseason—Fuller House debuts on Netflix Feb. 26, Rush Hour premieres March 31 on CBS, and ABC will air Uncle Buck this spring—because networks still believe these brands will give them a leg up with viewers. "We're ultimately in a business now of launching and creating events. You just have to be with this level of competition with so many choices for viewers. And even if you look at delayed viewing, there is only so much time viewers have to watch shows or to make commitments to different shows," said Fox Television Group co-CEO and co-chairman Dana Walden, who targeted an X-Files revival as one of her first major moves when she and Gary Newman took over the network in summer 2014. (They just ordered a limited series revival of another former Fox hit, Prison Break.)

That same thinking makes these revivals attractive to advertisers as well. Ford, which had partnered with Fox during the show's original nine-season run, is back for the limited series and is featuring its Explorer Platinum in all six episodes, with the vehicle's front 180-degree camera figuring prominently in one scene. "You get a double-bang for your buck in terms of the original audience, plus these new, younger generation millennials that will pick these shows up because they were such a cultural phenomenon the first time around," said Ginger Kasanic, experiential marketing manager at Ford.

To avoid the fate of those fall shows, revivals like The X-Files need to appeal to more than just die-hard fans. In a 2008, a second X-Files film failed in part because of an understated marketing campaign. "We kept it so secretive and under wraps, that no one knew about it. And that's a danger," said Carter. This time around, Fox has pulled out all the stops with an elaborate campaign (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have done Fox's heaviest lifting for it: a new generation of fans, some of whom weren't even born when the series went off the air in 2002, have streamed the series and should also be primed for its return. "We're in a brave new world here, in terms of how people find shows," said Carter, "and The X-Files has benefitted from that."

This story will appear in the Jan. 25 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.