Family Week: Cable Puts Best Foot Forward4/26/1998 8:00 PM Eastern
For the second time in two years, the cable industry is
pooling its formidable resources toward a single goal: drawing attention to the wide array
of cable programming for children and families.
Dubbed "Tune In to Kids and Family II," the June
8 through 14 event (it was held in April last year) is far from the only effort that the
industry makes in this regard.
But it is the only effort that plays to a potential
audience of every cable household at the same time, and that breaks down barriers between
competitors and tweaks the nose of the broadcast competition at the same time. And it
lends credence to the response that the National Cable Television Association had to the
National Television Violence Study financed by the cable industry -- that the industry has
already made "significant progress" in addressing the concerns that were raised
by the study.
"There was nothing done in concert, but, for the cable
industry, it's an added bonus to be able to say that although there is still some
concern, this is hundreds and hundreds of hours of good stuff," said Scott Broyles,
the NCTA's vice president for public affairs.
The initiative began with the notion by Josh Sapan,
president and CEO of Rainbow Media Holdings Inc., that cable-television networks can
occasionally be noncompetitive because they're all carried by a cable system. By
comparison, the broadcast networks are each carried by stations that are themselves
"This creates a structural opportunity for the cable
industry, for the programming community to band together and to put down the competitive
framework that they generally live with," Sapan explained.
But the issue had to be compelling, of industrywide
importance and potentially significant to every cable community. Programming for children
and families not only met those criterion, but it gave the industry a chance to blow its
Sapan and Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon, worked
to mesh the two. The result: an unprecedented show of unity by the industry and a chance
to lead the discussion, instead of responding to news reports or criticism.
Why use this power to focus on kids and family, instead of
on some other issue?
Because, Sapan said, it was an issue of "great
"To some degree, it puts ... a flashlight in your own
backyard, in your own eyes, because it immediately raises the question: 'What are you
doing about it?'" he said.
Among the components this year: By press time, at least 75
networks had agreed to participate by promising to feature family-friendly viewing during
primetime on at least one evening during the week.
At least 29 networks had agreed to roadblock the kickoff
special, Take a Moment, making it available to all cable households.
Participating networks also agreed to use the "Tune In
to Kids and Family" on-screen bug during any program airing in primetime that is
"free of excessive or gratuitous violence, strong language, or sexual theme or
content, and that deglamorizes harmful, illegal, or discriminatory behavior and
MSOs, through their local systems, will offer screenings,
workshops and other related activities. Also, they are distributing 40-plus different
public-service announcements via satellite.
The effort, which will cost about $500,000 in cash and
potentially millions of dollars in-kind, is being backed up by a 14- to 16-page supplement
in TV Guide, the varied PSAs and assorted materials, but not by any
A new feature adds some heft to the project: Tuesday, June
9, has been designated "National Critical Viewing Day" by the NCTA and the PTA,
which have been working together on the "Family and Community Critical Project"
since 1994. The project trains cable employees and PTA volunteers to present "Taking
Charge of Your TV" workshops in their communities.
The centerpiece of the special day is a half-hour,
nationally televised show from Washington, D.C., that will air on The Learning Channel at
Organizers hope that local cable operators and others will
plan events coordinated with the show, which will draw from the workshops. The partnership
expects to announce a new addition to the media-literacy campaign during the show.
That move resulted directly from feedback after last
year's event, explained Torie Clarke, the NCTA's vice presidentof
public affairs, addingthat cable operators wanted to focus more attention
on what the industry is doing -- especially locally, where the response has been positive.
"For instance, in this 'Tune In' week, a lot
of systems are participating in critical-viewing events in their communities," she
One change is the move from a serious town-hall event aimed
at adults, moderated by Linda Ellerbe, to an entertainment program designed to draw in
children and their parents. While the discussion show won attention from the press, Sapan
has higher hopes for the new direction.
"Hopefully, it is more energizing, more provocative,
more stimulating ... Hopefully, what we do this year will grab an eight-year-old," he
Linda Stuchell, vice president of programming and public
affairs for Harron Communications, is one of the cable operators who likes the change.
"The policymaker discussions are so dry: They really
are," Stuchell said.
"It gets back to, 'Don't be telling us all
about this: Just give us great programming. Educate customers that this super stuff is
Stuchell also applauded the addition of the
"I don't think that we've done enough. There
aren't enough people who know about the critical viewing. When you do focus-group
studies, the awareness isn't there," she said.
To Lisa White, a program associate at California-based
advocacy group Children Now, the second "Tune In" week is another in a series of
high notes played by the cable industry. The first was the request that advocacy groups
help with the design of a ratings package, including a video featuring Bob "Captain
Kangaroo" Keeshan, a brochure and a sticker for remote controls.
"We think that they've really done a lot to help
parents and children to understand television and to be critical viewers of it, and
they've done a lot to give parents the right tools to monitor their children's
television viewing," White said.
The critical-viewing component could turn the week from an
honest effort without much merit into a potentially useful effort, according to Dusty
Saunders, television critic for the Rocky Mountain News.
"There's been so much emphasis in the past about
all of the junk, but I think that the emphasis should be on how to create an environment
where they go for the good stuff," Saunders said.
Arizona Republic TV critic Dave Walker was disappointed
by some of last year's effort, but he sees tremendous potential in cable's use
as an educational tool. He termed last year's special "disappointing,"
because "it ended up being an infomercial, more than anything else."
Walker, though, praised cable for "pointing out all of
the good stuff that is available for families to watch, or even for kids to watch
Walker only allows his nine-year-old son to watch one
channel without restrictions: Nickelodeon. And he praised cable for offering
"superior programming for the family."
While the TV-violence survey showed that cable houses much
of the violence on TV, Walker noted, "To cable's credit, they haven't made
any effort to suppress the results ... A lot of that is because cable TV is the outlet for
Hollywood movies more and more, and those are much more violent than primetime broadcast
Some critics, however, as much they like cable's
programming overall, are skeptical about the entire "Kids and Family Week" idea.
To Sunny Schubert, avid cable viewer and mother of two
young cable viewers, the cable industry is preaching to the choir. An editorial writer for
the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Wis., Schubert wrote one of last
year's harshest criticisms:
"During 'Tune In to Kids and Family Week,'
cable stations are featuring kid-friendly shows during primetime. But next week, it's
back to sex and violence for some of the stations. For others, like Nickelodeon, The
Family Channel and Discovery Channel -- which show family fare all day, every day -- the
special week is redundant, at best. The major networks -- NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox -- are
conspicuously absent from this exercise in [temporary] good taste," she wrote.
This self-professed Rugrats junkie thinks that the
message isn't reaching the right people if it's not advertising on the broadcast
networks. She also wonders about an exercise that invites children to watch a network one
week that won't have similar fare at the same time every week.
"USA [Network] may participate in this, fine, but next
week, when they go back to Baywatch, I'm not going to sit there watching
USA," Schubert explained.
But Scannell wondered if cable gets credit for creating
family shows, with all of the adult programming and violence on the air. The special week
is a way of pointing out all that cable has to offer, he said.
"The truth of the matter is that we do it every day,
but it's kind of like Mothers Day. You love your mother every day of the year, but on
one day, you show it in a different way," Scannell said.
Local cable operators said they are happy to have the
chance to put cable's best foot forward.
Tom Sharrard, president of Time Warner Cable's
Milwaukee division, favors cross-promotion, in general.
"This kind of coordinated media campaign definitely
can help," he said.
His system has set aside 30 percent of its local ad avails
for cross-promoting the campaign, "to really dramatically emphasize the value of
cable to our existing customers."
Giving up ad sales -- which constitute only 3 percent to 5
percent of his system's gross -- is an easy decision when it helps to protect the
other 95 percent: subscriber revenue.
"It's absolutely critical now that we
differentiate ourselves from the broadcast networks," Sharrard said. "This is
something that the industry needs to continue to emphasize -- that literally anyone who
has kids needs to consider having that in the home."
As part of the program for his 400,000 households,
Sharrard's system offers below-cost special remote controls that allow parents to
restrict viewing to a half-dozen channels programmed by the cable operator.
Stuchell sees value in repeating the campaign.
"We are trying to reinforce consistent messages.
Everything that we know about messaging said that you have to tell people more than
once," she said.
So far, Harron hasn't planned any special event
tie-ins for its 250,000 customers, in part because Stuchell said the MSO's effort is
there throughout the year. One example is a family day, now in its third year, that drew
8,500 people last year.
"You have to try to find a balance, to say, 'Yes,
there are things that aren't suitable,'" Stuchell said. "We've
made great strides. Are we there yet? No. We have to keep reinforcing the message [that
it] all boils down to control in the hands of parents."
Essentially, though, "Tune In" week is about
"It's a promotion week. It's a marketing
week. It's a major commitment from the industry," Clarke said.