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Some Success With Family TV, 06.03.02 ...

A consortium of advertisers that funnels seed money to help develop family-oriented television programming has seen a record number of those shows make the broadcast networks' coming prime-time schedules.

The organization, the Family Friendly Programming Forum, has five of its partly subsidized shows three new, one midseason replacement and one returning slated for the 2002-03 season. Previously, the best performance by the four-year-old consortium, whose 48 members include Coca-Cola, Ford Motor, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, came last season, when two of its shows were picked up.

The shows, all in the early hours of prime time, include a return to TV by John Ritter in ABC's "Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and an updated remake of the 1960's sitcom "Family Affair" on WB.

The strong showing by consortium-endorsed shows comes as networks are increasingly embracing fare that a family can watch together, and more than a score of this fall's shows can also be described as appealing to multigenerational audiences. That makes it difficult to gauge exactly the influence of the Family Friendly Programming Forum. But network executives agreed that the consortium's efforts made a difference.

"It was really smart of the advertisers to set themselves up as the organization that would support the networks' efforts to schedule this kind of programming, rather than as an organization that would threaten to boycott networks that didn't," said Susan Lyne, president of the ABC Entertainment division of ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Company.

"That created open arms at the networks," she added, "because who does not want more financial help to develop material?"

The consortium serves, essentially, as an incubator of new ideas. As many members as want to currently, 18 of the 48 contribute about $25,000 to $50,000 a year each to a fund used to develop scripts for four of the six broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and WB (Fox and UPN do not take part.) If a network likes a script, it will ask a studio to produce a pilot or sample episode, which is considered in the spring as a potential fall series.

"Though we pay for development of the scripts, we have absolutely no influence whatsoever over which shows are selected to go to pilot or which are picked up," said Andrea Alstrup, the consortium's chairwoman and corporate vice president for advertising at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J.

"All 18 of us might think a script is great, but then it won't be picked up," Ms. Alstrup said. "That decision is totally the networks' to make."

If a show sponsored by the consortium makes a network schedule, the members do not receive ownership stakes in the show. They are encouraged, but not required, to buy commercial time during each episode. Similarly, the network is under no special obligation to share the plots of episodes with consortium members before they run, or to place products sold by the members in the programs.

Knowing that advertisers are positively predisposed to a particular show can only help a pilot's chances of making a network's schedule. "The shows are demographically attractive, and family friendly is a Good Housekeeping seal, an affirmation you can watch them and there's nothing to put you in an uncomfortable position," said Andy Donchin, director for national broadcast at Carat USA in New York, a media services division of the Carat unit of the Aegis Group. Its clients include a charter consortium member, Pfizer.

Both television and advertising are notoriously fad-driven businesses, however, so when the two agree on something there is no guarantee it will last. After all, you will not be watching many game shows or Westerns in prime time this year. Family-focused programming, so omnipresent from the 1950's through the 1980's, faded as marketers switched to seeking consumers ages 18 to 49, and the networks responded with more sophisticated early-evening fare like "Friends."

But late last week, as advertisers rushed to make deals with the networks to buy commercial time ahead of the fall season in the so-called upfront market executives at agencies and networks said they believed the shift to family-oriented series may prove to be more than a passing fancy.

The primary reason they gave: advertisers' ardor for reaching parents and children, who can be more efficiently aimed at when they watch TV together, is growing as baby-boomer families thrive and the first members of Generation X start bearing offspring. The executives also predicted the trend could have legs because the networks have broadened their definition of family friendly since the days when Ricky loved Lucy to embrace nontraditional households, reflecting the changing composition of audiences.

"There were many who had a skeptical initial reaction to the idea of creating family-friendly programming almost by committee, if you will," said David Marans, senior partner at MindShare in New York, a media services agency owned by the WPP Group.

"But `Gilmore Girls' raised a lot of eyebrows by succeeding beyond what was hoped for with viewers, critics and advertisers," he added. The reference was to the WB series introduced in the 2000-2001 season that was the first to be produced under the auspices of the consortium.

"Gilmore Girls" will be back for a third season on WB, owned by AOL Time Warner and the Tribune Company, and will be joined there by "Family Affair." Two other networks will be presenting their initial shows developed with the consortium: ABC, with "Eight Simple Rules," and NBC, with "American Dreams." ABC also gave a green light to the fifth consortium series for 2002-03, "Veritas," which is awaiting a time slot.

The family-friendly approach at ABC, which suffered a steep decline in prime-time ratings last season, is part of an attempt to restore the network's luster. "Some of our greatest success in the past came with family comedies with distinct voices, whether `Roseanne' or `Home Improvement,' " said ABC's Ms. Lyne. Invoking that heritage, the network is making the hour from 8 and 9 Eastern time on weeknights its family-oriented hour.

"We are clearly a challenged network," Ms. Lyne said. "Next season, 8 o'clock is the essential place to grab a new audience."

"What we have made clear to the advertising community is that the programming at that hour, while targeted to our core audience 18 to 49, is entirely appropriate for multigenerations to watch together," she added. "The more, the better."

The 2002-03 season marks the third in a row that WB has offered programs from the consortium, along with other family series like "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "Seventh Heaven." One consortium show on WB last season, "Raising Dad," was canceled after low ratings.

"We've been big champions of the forum," said Jordan Levin, entertainment president at WB, partly because "our business model is to get kids and teenagers in the door" by aiming programming at viewers ages 12 to 34.

"We've also proven that `family friendly' is not a stigma and does not have to mean programs that are too soft or not engaging or contemporary," he added, citing "Gilmore Girls," about a single mother and her feisty teenage daughter.

NBC, owned by General Electric, has led in scheduling franker fare from 8 to 9 p.m. like "Friends" and "Fear Factor." However, its first show from the consortium, the drama "American Dreams," will be broadcast from 8 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

"The family hour is a vestige of years gone by," said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. "It's nearly impossible to get the family to sit down around the TV at 8 o'clock Eastern, 7 o'clock Central."

"On the other hand, we at NBC are thrilled to have this traditional family drama on as part of our schedule," he added. "Our focus, our priority, is 18 to 49, but we want the broadest audience possible and want to be associated with programs viewers have good feelings about."

The consortium is "a terrific organization because it offers another outlet for us to help with our development," Mr. Zucker said. "We wouldn't pick up any program just because it's part of the forum. It has to be something we want to put on."
Credit: NY Times

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