The appeal of retro TV has more to do with experiencing a bygone age through contemporary eyes than churning out cheap repeats of classics or presenting reels of archive footage so we can laugh, writes Meg Carter.
Cheap telly made by re-hashing old ideas, or TV totally in tune with the zeitgeist? Nostalgia may not be what it used to be for some people, but for programme-makers and broadcasters alike, 'retro TV' has become something of a lucrative seam to mine as TV stations compete in a bid to emulate the ratings success of shows such as Channel 4's recent Saturday night hit series of Top Tens ...

Top Tens ... combined a retrospective of musical genres from the fifties onwards with mini-profiles of key protagonists and snapshots of what life was really like for everyone back in those days. This deceptively simple mix won a steady Saturday night audience for the channel and has since inspired other broadcasters to follow suit.

Currently in production for ITV is the LWT-produced Smash, which comprises six 30-minute shows documenting the musical and social history of the UK hit single. BBC 2, meanwhile, is developing its own Saturday night retro slot, starting in July - a series of 10 themed evenings titled I Love the 1970s.

According to Channel X joint managing director Alan Marke, there's always been a place for retro TV in the schedules. BBC 1 had its Rock'n'Roll Years more than a decade ago, while in the early nineties BBC 2 broke new ground with its TV Heaven and TV Hell. But millennial angst may be providing a greater fillip to those who hanker for the good old days.

'You can't beat nostalgia, especially at the moment,' he explains. 'It's always reassuring in times of change to look back at how things used to be. Heartbeat's success is all about how much nicer everything was in the sixties. Retro is particularly appealing in times when the future seems uncertain - like now.'

Broadly speaking, retro TV divides into two sub-genres: archive-based entertainment shows and themed specials comprising resurrected old favourites repackaged not as 'repeats' but as retrospective 'strands'.

At first glance, the appeal to the broadcaster is obvious. All of us are nostalgic for a particular time in our lives and like to be reminded of the music, fashions and lifestyles of the day. There are also many old programmes which have become classics of their time and are now either ripe for re-packaging for a contemporary audience, or ready to be updated with a fresh cast.

'A number of issues makes both likely to become increasingly common,' says Channel X head of development Jim Reid. 'More channels mean more programming is needed and so there's more space for resurrecting old shows.'

But there's also the fact that the stakes have become so high now that there is little room for failure, he adds. 'Dusting off old programme formats is a way of minimising the risks. Certain series, such as Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), are widely known even by those who can't remember them. You don't have to explain the concept. People remember it and even if they don't, it's so ingrained in popular culture they think they do.'

More noticeable than re-makes is the current appeal retro has for factual and entertainment programme-makers. 'It's got a lot to do with the age of commissioning editors now,' RDF Television head of entertainment Gary Monaghan believes. 'Those in control today are in their late thirties and early forties so the seventies and early eighties mean a lot to them and to other people the same age.'

With the launch of non-terrestrial channels scheduling back-to-back repeats from five, 10, even 15 years ago, terrestrial schedulers realised the potential for cashing in on nostalgia by developing theme nights comprising retrospective strands. Monaghan adds: 'The beginnings of retro's real ascent were those Starsky & Hutch and Dr Who specials on C4 and BBC 2.'

ITV's recent Abba night attracted an audience of more than 10 million, yet theme nights are by no means a guaranteed ratings success. 'Just because you liked Charlie's Angels doesn't mean everyone else who remembers it will automatically tune in,' he continues.

'With Top Tens ... we believe we have found a documentary narrative approach that is both fresh and compelling,' says C4 head of entertainment Kevin Lygo. 'Nostalgia is an element of it, but that's not all. It has to be a good watch - a good entertainment programme with good stories as people talk about moments in their lives that meant something to them.

'That's why themed nights such as Starsky & Hutch, Charlie's Angels and Dallas haven't rated so well. These were pure nostalgia, little more,' Lygo adds. 'Archive has to be used intelligently and imaginatively. You can't do just another clip show fronted by Dale Winton in front of a studio audience.

'There's no limit with the format, so long as you continue to refresh people's memories of what these events were really about. There is a danger in exploring only the kitsch. Looking back only to laugh at how funny the clothes were is not enough. That's missing the point.'

It therefore comes as no surprise that the combination of nostalgic clips packaged within a contemporary perspective is the balance the most recent generation of retro TV has struck. BBC 2's forthcoming I Love the 1970s is a case in point.

The series profiles the era that 'shaped the world - and its trousers'.

Pop hits, film stars, celebrities and TV personalities, plus fashion and lifestyle trends will be featured in all their garish glory.

'(BBC 2 controller) Jane Root was looking for something that would work over a run, not just as a one-off,' explains BBC Manchester producer Alan Brown, who is developing the new show. 'The idea is for a 10-week run of themed nights, with each comprising a number of different elements and a documentary about the year in question at its heart.'

BBC 2's aim is to make its Saturday night output more distinctive, he adds. 'It's not just about music but also film, TV, fashion, toys and so on. Although it is targeting people now in their thirties and early forties, like the Top Tens ... on C4 we believe it will draw in other people as well.'

But to make it work takes more than simply stringing together some archive clips, Brown insists. 'It's a piece of popular history, that's the way we look at it.'

'The hard thing, though, is finding film-makers able to create something out of it. You want to generate a mood, how it felt to have been part of it. It's not just about voyeurism - looking back through old clips.

Nor is it about being cynical and laughing at the way we were. It has to have heart rather than simply relishing in kitsch.'

By the same measure, programme-makers insist that it's not particularly cheap television. 'For a start, good archive footage is not as cheap as some people might think. And then there's the fact that we don't just want to string a series of old clips together,' says Brown. 'There is a big risk in doing too much retro. The challenge is adding something different, perhaps an interpretation or an enhancement that makes it more.'

You've got to conjure up a sense of place and time, he adds. Ultimately, this comes down to gathering good stories and anecdotes with the best available archive material, both of which take considerable time and effort to research.

'It's not so much retro TV as TV reminiscences of important popular culture moments from the past 20 to 25 years, many of which were also TV events,' agrees Granada controller of entertainment Duncan Gray. 'As my generation grows up and into the mainstream, so these events - the things people like me remember or were influenced by as a child or while growing up - move into the mainstream as well.'

Nor is it about glorying in kitsch. 'It's about getting people to share that experience of reminiscing in a fragmented environment where (watching) the television is one of the few collective experiences we still have,' he says. 'The trick is how to make all this mainstream. You have to choose the right subject with the right power and resonance to produce the right collective experience. Anyone can come up with a niche retro idea for C4 or BBC 2.'

Timing, however, can often be just as important as topic, Brown believes.

'It takes time for a particular era to have resonance after the event,' he says. 'Fifteen years, perhaps. Only recently have the eighties really taken off in that sense. It will be a little while yet before you could turn your attentions to the early nineties. What works best is when people who have grown up can look back and say "ah, that was the time when I was growing up".'

Channel X's Reid agrees, adding that he is confident there is still considerable scope for developing new and alternative retro formats. 'We've only seen the beginning in that respect,' he claims. 'Some time back, for example, we came up with an idea for a retro chat show - looking back on who was doing what in a particular era. It didn't get off the ground back then, maybe because it was ahead of its time. Perhaps now is a good time to look at it again.'

Step forward then, retro TV, to be dusted down and to zoom up the charts of emerging genres. Enjoy basking in the glorious present before, inevitably, being once again relegated to the annals of history.

LOOKING BACK: A PERSONAL VIEWFor some, it's policemen looking younger; for others it's the A-Z getting smaller. But for me it's definitely TV nostalgia; it's a sure sign I'm getting older. Just as I come across a new TV star or pop sensation, they're being given their own tribute show or theme night. It's all so indiscriminate. The Best of Noel's House Party, Roger Cook's Greatest Hits, Auntie's Greatest Bloomers. What next - Vanessa Feltz: The Fat Years; Bob Martin: the Funny Bits?Surely the solution is simply to pay more tributes to Barbara Windsor, for she is at least keen to play along. Leaving aside the repeat fees, this retro attention is not always welcome. A friend rang recently, shocked that Mike Smith had declined to appear on After They Were Famous and did I think I could help? No, but why not try Lee Hurst?Nowadays, the archive avalanche means everything is repackaged almost before it has gone out. The idea behind my Match of the Seventies was to recapture a forgotten world of footballing flair and innocence - and that's just the haircuts. When the BBC ran Match of the Nineties before the decade had even finished they were recalling what? A time when Manchester United only won the Premiership by 10 points and David Beckham had hair?At least my original series boasted the clip featuring the commentary line 'and that result means Manchester United are relegated'.

I remember when nostalgia was nostalgia. When I first set out to work the goldmine that is the nation's shared cultural heritage it was a pioneering occupation packed with fear and trepidation. Did that early Parkinson featuring WG Grace and the Daleks still exist? Would the rushes be usable?And was there anyone still alive who could tell me who was who?When I was young we may have been standing in the archive gutter but we were at least looking up at the stars, or Danny La Rues as they were known. And it was all a genuine journey into an unknown past. Whether it was discovering that the comic legends my parents had droned on about were indeed brilliant performers or revelling in the stars in their world of light entertainment, it was a window into another era. Nostalgia on tap.

So it's the young people I feel sorry for. What will they have to look back on in today's schedules? How many classic runs of Only Fools and Horses do you need before you can have a special Hall of Fame tribute to the 100th showing of Del Boy falling behind the bar? And can you put together the best of the best of ... Noel Edmonds? If so, what do you do with the remaining 29 minutes?Maybe my purist notion of nostalgia programming was just an old man's dream and the real answer lies in the new cutting-edge world of archive nostalgia spin-off brand. Just imagine - there could be Changing Rooms that Changing Room Changed (that is cover up the trompe l'oeils). Or Who Wanted To Be A Millionaire? in which all the questions are about what happened on the original show. Never mind who wrote Jane Eyre - which friend did Gordon from Grantham actually phone?My favourite is a special Antiques Roadshow devoted entirely to those in possession of the family heirlooms of the future - original copies of the very first episodes of, you've guessed it, the Antiques Roadshow?Priceless.

By Tony Moss, head of Chrysalis Television.