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Looking forward to Gen X nostalgia

Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre, Jordan Knight, Danny Wood, and Jonathan Knight of New Kids On The Block during the NBC "Today" show concert series at Rockefeller Center on May 16, 2008 in New York City.

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KAI RYSSDAL: When we were younger, my brother was the first kid in our neighborhood who could solve a Rubik's Cube. That kind of dates me, I guess, because the thing first got really popular back in the late '70s, early '80s. But look around the next time you're in a toy store. Because Rubik's Cubes are back, as are a whole bunch of pop items from the past. Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports on the comeback economy.


NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: [MUSIC] "Hang tough...."

CAITLAN CARROLL: For those fans who have hung tough since that album went platinum in 1988, today is a big day. The '80s boy-turned-man band New Kids on the Block performed for the first time in 15 years. Fans outside of NBC studios stood 20-deep, craning their necks to catch a glimpse.

President of the New Kids fan club Katrina Walker flew from L.A. to New York to see the New Kids comeback first-hand. It's the kick-off of a multimillion-dollar national tour.

KATRINA WALKER: Some of us were like, Oh my god. We kind of reverted back to being 15. That excitement again about the group -- it's something, it doesn't go away.

Marketers count on that kind of reaction. They're always waiting for the tipping point when pop icons can become cool and profitable again. Marketing expert Sarah Sladek says 20 years is the magic number when it comes to nostalgia -- and that time's arrived for Generation X.

Sarah Sladek: Generation X, which is now ages 26 to 44, have moved into parenting roles. They've moved into purchasing power, and they're driving the market.

But their moving in so many directions that marketers are having trouble keeping up with them. Sladek says teenyboppers who once rocked out to New Kids' "Hanging Tough" album aren't willing to latch on to every trend that comes along.

SLADEK: They grew up in dual-parent working households. They are very self-sufficient. They are not going to be persuaded by sales schemes.

But as they move into quarter- and mid-life crises they can be persuaded by memories. At least that's what the entertainment industry's banking on. To get back dwindling and distracted audiences, the new fall TV lineup has a strangely old feel to it.

The CW network is remaking "Beverly Hills 90210." Kitt, the talking car, will drive its way back into living rooms in new episodes of "Knight Rider." And "American Gladiator" continues to smash its way to top ratings.

The CW network's Thom Sherman says a show like "90210" could strike advertising gold.

Thom Sherman: This could be the perfect vehicle for us to capture a young audience of teens and also 18-34s who might have been fans of the show in the past.

And when Gen X-ers sit down to watch TV with their kids or go with them to a New Kids concert, audiences can double or triple. Bigger audiences make for bigger payoffs.

USC marketing professor Ken Wilbur says that's why companies are increasingly placing bets on known quantities.

KEN WILBUR: As we fracture more and more and it gets tougher to justify the investment that a new TV series or a new band costs to produce then I think you'll see more and more applications of old formulas.

Wilbur says "Married with Children," the "Real World" reunion, grunge, maybe even "The Cosby Show" could be the next throwback to comeback.

WILBUR: Yeah, these can't be too far behind. Bill Cosby is sitting by a phone somewhere in Philadelphia right now.

And while Bill waits, the TV and music industries pine for the good old days too. The days when cell phones, iPods and the Internet didn't steal their audiences and their profits.

In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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