A Jones for Classic TV

TV Land and Nick at Nite chief has a blast with the past

Larry Jones, president of TV Land and Nick at Nite, has parlayed a childhood love of collecting into a career. From coins to celebrity autographs, he now has the best collecting job in the world: selecting and running classic TV shows.

"I'm creating brands by collecting shows from our past and repackaging them for audiences today," says Jones.

Some of Jones's favorite autographed pictures, like Jackie Gleason, George Burns, and Bob Newhart, hang on the wall in his TV Land office. He purchased another piece of TV history last year: the Honeymooners
set, including the table, four chairs, icebox, and sink. That slice of history ran a cool $67,000; happily, TV Land picked up the tab. The set welcomes visitors at TV Land's New York headquarters.

"Larry loves classic TV. He could be a character in a TV show," says his boss, Nickelodeon Networks President Herb Scannell. "He strikes a good balance between reverence and irreverence for television."

Aside from brief tours in advertising and marketing, Jones is an MTV Networks lifer. He first joined Nick at Nite as a marketing coordinator in 1988; he was the Nickelodeon offshoot's first full-time employee. He traveled the country staging affiliate promotions, such as a TV-character tour with faded celebs and a fake Mr. Ed horse head. Nick at Nite furiously bought up old sitcoms and gained a following. As the network grew, so did Jones's role.

Back then, Nick at Nite programmed for adults from 8 p.m. throughout the night. The rest of the day was devoted to Nickelodeon's kids programming. Here's the catch: There were more terrific shows than Nick at Nite could accommodate. Jones and his co-workers dreamed of buying more sitcoms and dramas, too. (Nick at Nite was strictly comedy.) One channel wasn't enough. "That passionate base birthed TV Land," Jones recalls.

With the launch of TV Land in 1996, classic shows had a dedicated 24/7 home.

TV Land debuted just as the industry was changing. Cable operators had launched digital cable and were putting new networks in digital packages, which today reach only one-third of subscribers. But TV Land, which reaches 83 million homes, was one of the last new channels to receive wide analog cable carriage. Jones, a key executive on the launch team, was tapped as general manager. By 2001, he headed both TV Land and Nick at Nite.

Through the years, Jones has established a reputation as a TV historian. What makes a classic? "A show that endures by delivering on its entertainment value," he says. "Is it still funny today? Is it still dramatic today?"

Jones is particularly partial to The Odd Couple
but is also a fan of Seinfeld
and Everybody Loves Raymond; both, he contends, will hold up over time. Yet some classics, like The Brady Bunch, surprise him. "It didn't set the world on fire, but, in syndication, it created its hit status."

More recently, he has been amazed by the performance of Full House
on Nick at Nite. "We didn't know it was going to be so popular," he admits. "The 18- to 34-year-old numbers are huge." (It helps that the show's then-toddler stars, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, have become teenage draws.)

Jones's newest challenge is jumping into original programming.

Like all cable channels, Nick at Nite and TV Land are searching for ways to keep audience interest and build a library of their own. To complement their off-net lineups, Jones says, "we're looking for shows that are family-friendly, funny, and familiar."

The first volley comes in June, when TV Land debuts the animated show Fatherhood, based on comic Bill Cosby's book. Jones hopes his original fare will make TV history. too. "We're trying to create our own modern classics."