Where did all the TV families go?; Programs: If the idea of a family-oriented network appears doomed, blame it on the power of sex and changes in how families watch television.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fifty years ago this fall, television's first family series, "The Goldbergs," a CBS sitcom about a Jewish family in the Bronx, debuted. It was an instant success and inspired a slew of copycats, with family shows becoming the backbone of network programming for the next four decades.

Today, despite an explosion of new networks and cable channels, you can count the number of series featuring such a nuclear family on one hand.

There has been a dramatic change in the relationship between family and television. Families on-screen have virtually disappeared. And programs that the whole family can watch together -- programs without excessive sex, violence or harsh language -- are few and far between.

With successful cable channels dedicated to everything from golf to gardening, you might think a channel devoted to family-friendly fare would be a sure bet. Not so. Audiences for such channels have been so disappointing as to put in question whether American television viewers really do want wholesome family programs.

Last year, Lowell "Bud" Paxson, born-again Christian and multimillionaire founder of the Home Shopping Network, saying he was "called by God," started the Pax-TV network. He promised programming that would be "highly God-driven."

But last month, after a year of rerunning such shows as "Touched by an Angel" and attracting less than 1 percent of the viewers, Paxson sold his network to NBC, whose reruns will be more sex-driven.

"Historically, the track record for channels devoted to family programming is a pretty lousy one," says Douglas Gomery, a media historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "None of them have found much of an audience. Remember Pat Robertson and his Family Channel?"

The Family Channel went through several incarnations over two decades, but never found enough of an audience to keep it from being a drain on Robertson's religious ministry. Last year it was sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation Limited and Saban Entertainment, which now run it as the Fox Family Channel.

The new entity, according to Joe Cronin, its president and CEO, inherited from Robertson a small audience of mostly older viewers. Small and old is a deadly combination in for-profit television, where advertisers prefer younger viewers because they are less set in their buying ways.

"The programming was dominated by reruns such as 'Diagnosis Murder,' which had strong older appeal, but it had very little appeal to a younger family audience," Cronin says. "As a family channel, it wasn't really living up to its name."

But despite a radical redesign of the schedule and millions of dollars in original programming, Fox hasn't fared much better as a family channel. At the end of its first year, its audience was smaller than Robertson's, though the demographics are younger.

It is a strange melange of programming. The day starts with shows for preschool children. At 9 a.m. Robertson comes on for 90 minutes of "CBN Special Edition" and "700 Club." One of the conditions of sale last year, Cronin explains, was that Fox would continue to carry Robertson's 90-minute block of programs.

Thus on one recent day, the ostensible family channel featured Robertson inveighing against a Princeton University bioethicist, Peter Singer, as a Hitler figure who advocates "killing defective babies."

The afternoon schedule offers programs for older children, filled with advertisements for toys and merchandise related to such controversial kids' shows as "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" -- which was created by Haim Saban, now co-owner of Fox Family Channel.

The Faith and Values Network, a cable channel with an even smaller audience, is traveling a similar path. It started as a religious channel in 1988, but after a decade of struggle and several name changes, it took on commercial partners last year and is now operating as the Odyssey channel for "today's family." Programming ranges from reruns of "ALF," an old NBC sitcom about a smart- aleck puppet from another planet, to "Daily Mass."

Like the term "family values," family-friendly television can mean different things to different people. Paxson once defined it as: "no excessive sex, no excessive violence or foul language." On other occasions, though, he has extended the definition to include no "alternative lifestyles." So has Robertson -- and both acknowledge using the airwaves to proselytize.

As Gomery puts it, "History suggests there is not much of an audience for that kind of family television."

But what about programs about families that the family can watch together? What's responsible for the vast change from only a decade ago when "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties" and "Full House" were among the highest-rated series on network TV?

One factor was the discovery by network programmers that they could get more young viewers with sex-laden programs like NBC's "Friends" and Fox's "Ally McBeal."

Another reason is more sociological, according to Ralph Farquhar, an executive producer of sitcoms for UPN: "Families don't watch TV together anymore, so why make shows for the whole family? Everyone's got their own TV in their room, and they're watching their own shows in the evening. The family gathered around the set in the living room is gone, gone, gone, and the networks make shows accordingly."

Renewed hope for family television came in August when a coalition of 30 major corporations, organized as the Family Friendly Programming Forum, announced that it will fund the development at the WB network of scripts for as many as a dozen new series geared to family viewing.

Neither WB nor forum members will say how much money has been committed, but it is known to be less than $1 million -- not much moola by network standards.

Why the WB network? Because it has the ideal family-friendly show in "Seventh Heaven," a drama about a surprisingly functional family of mom, dad and five kids in which dad (Stephen Collins) just happens to be a minister. And, while the series purposefully avoids promoting any particular religion, it does acknowledge and celebrate the spiritual life.

"I look at the success of a series like 'Seventh Heaven' and wonder why there aren't more family shows like it on network TV," says Jeff Sagansky, the former president of CBS Entertainment who heads up Pax programming.

Garth Ancier, the former head of programming at WB who is president of NBC Entertainment, says he's working on it.

"As the person who put 'Seventh Heaven' on the air, I think there is a family audience at 8 o'clock, and we are steering producers toward making more family programs, because we are out of balance on the family side," he says.

But asked when to expect such shows on the air, Ancier adds, "The midseason comedy crop will probably produce some shows in the spring [for NBC programmers to evaluate]. But, if the shows aren't good enough, they won't ever be on the air."

In other words, don't hold your breath waiting for the Y2K version of "The Goldbergs" -- or for a renaissance in family television.

Pub Date: 10/19/99

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