With Another Retooling, Fox Family Seeks Niche

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LOS ANGELES -With its once-and-again retooled programming strategy, Fox Family Channel is taking another crack at sucessfully becoming a haven for contemporary families.

Since its relaunch two years ago, Fox Family has undergone several stops and starts in terms of its programming-and none of them have stopped its ratings from taking a nosedive.

During this period, the network has succeeded in luring kids and so-called "tweens" during the day. Primetime, however, has remained problematic.

At first, Fox Family aired kid- and teen-oriented series in the evening and reality shows at night. It later shifted all of its primetime lineup toward more adult-driven fare.

Now, with the exit of executive vice president of programming Rob Sorcher, Fox Family has a new official overseeing its evening schedule: Tom Halleen, recently promoted to senior vice president of primetime programming and development.

A veteran since the Family Channel days, Halleen has a game plan. At night, he wants Fox Family to target adults 35 to 49 with entertainment programming that's family friendly, but appeals to adults and is safe enough for kids to enjoy, too.

Halleen has a number of initiatives he will put in place. He wants to brand specific nights with originals, as opposed to spreading them out across Fox Family's schedule. He's hoping that developing a batch of half-hour "dramedies" will set Fox Family-which is owned by Saban Entertainment and News Corp.-apart.

And he wants Fox Family's new round of original movies to be romantic comedies, a genre he thinks the network can own.

Halleen also believes he has given Fox Family a better platform from which to promote itself, thanks to the off-network series he helped acquire:
Freaks & Geeks
,
Providence
,
7th Heaven

and
Early Edition
. Those shows are meant to draw viewers to the network so they will be enticed to sample its original fare.

With its latest programming tweak, Fox Family thinks it can claim ownership of the family-programming niche-and make an about-face in the ratings-despite competitors in that genre such as Disney Channel, Odyssey Network and Pax TV.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

"How we are different is that we acknowledge that there is a demographic between the age of 35 and 49 that has a desire for programming that's appropriate and that's not going to be offensive," Halleen said. "There's a strong opportunity for us to own this niche under the definition that families are different today.

"There are many types of families. And their sensibilities for programming have changed since years ago. We want to appeal to that family, and we can."

Fox Family earlier this year commissioned a study that found cable subscribers are yearning for more family- oriented programming. That's the void the network wants to help fill.

Fox Family's rivals in its family niche argue they've done a good job providing family fare and there is no void. Those competitors and some cable operators are skeptical about the network's odds for success with this latest incarnation, since Fox Family has already had so many false starts.

"We positioned ourselves uniquely as targeting adults with programming that's not inappropriate for kids," said Margaret Loesch, president and CEO of Odyssey, which has also relaunched. "We've been very consistent. We've never changed our position. It's somewhat fashionable now. Fox Family is late to the game."

Referring to Fox Family, Loesch said: "Just calling yourself a family channel doesn't mean you are one."

Fox Family is now seeking contract renewals-and license-fee increases-from MSOs, citing, in part, its investment in original programming. And a number of Top 5 MSOs, such as Comcast Corp. and Cablevision Systems Corp., have lent their support.

Other cable operators maintain that Fox Family's spending on programming doesn't justify a rate hike.

"Their programming strategy has not worked yet," said Jerry McKenna, vice president of strategic marketing at Cable One Inc. "They're making some changes. The jury is still out.

"They have invested in programming, but there is some risk involved. We are not going to underwrite their risk."

So far, some of the tent poles of Fox Family's latest new programming strategy haven't turned in gangbuster performances. Most of the off-network shows, such as
Providence
, aren't generating huge ratings.


Providence
's 8 p.m. airing was only garnering a 0.43 rating, and a recently added 9 p.m. showing has averaged a 0.47. One of the original series that Fox Family debuted around Halloween,
The Fearing Mind
, recently has posted only a 0.5 household rating.

But
Freaks & Geeks
, with a 0.7 rating, is outperforming FX and TNN: The National Network in its time period, according to Fox Family.

"They've made great strides with acquired programming," said Ray Solley, an agent at the William Morris Agency who oversees cable sales and packaging. "But it's not an easy situation.

"But there is a team in place now that's incredibly gifted, and they've learned through a lot of mistakes. And you can assume there's a real tight time frame on this thing."

This summer, Fox Family commissioned Peter D. Hart Research Associates for a study of just over 1,000 cable subscribers-mainly from Charter Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp.

"We feel there is this space in the basic-cable landscape that we're in a unique position to own, and that is this issue of contemporary family entertainment," Fox Family general manager Tracy Lawrence said. "So what we wanted to do is commission a study that confirmed that we're moving in the right direction.

"We wanted to look at our positioning in the context of where Americans thought of it, how are Americans feeling about their lives, about their country and the importance of a family channel within that context."

The study found that 30 percent of the cable subscribers surveyed defined a "family channel" as "something the whole family can watch together," with 22 percent saying it "had no excessive violence" and 18 percent saying it had "no gratuitous sex."

The study also found that "family-oriented" topped the list of the kind of cable networks people wanted more of [ahead of educational, entertainment, sports and child- oriented services]. Forty-six percent of parents cited a need for "family-oriented" channels, as did 26 percent of non-parents.

In addition, 80 percent of those surveyed subscribers said they liked to watch family-oriented entertainment.

Finally, the surveyed cable subscribers, when asked, "Is this network geared more to adults, children or both?", put Fox Family in the middle of "geared toward kids" at one end and "geared toward adults" at the other. Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were seen as skewed towards kids.

Lawrence said Fox Family was heartened by the findings of its research, and felt the network was "ideally placed."

Said Lawrence: "There are a lot of kids networks out there. Do people need another kids network? Probably not. Do they need another adult network? Do they need another adult network that they can't watch with their kids? I doubt it.

"But we claim a territory that we feel none else can really claim. And it's right there in the middle..Fox Family Channel is in a unique position to own that very, very important channel position."

While out on affiliate sales meetings, Lawrence has learned that cable operators are satisfied that basic-cable categories such as kids and sports are strong. But operators are frustrated that "family programming is the last category that hasn't been fully realized," Lawrence said.

Odyssey isn't the only network that begs to differ with Fox Family's claim that the family niche is wide open. Pax TV also maintains it has made a stake in that category with original programming such as
It's a Miracle

and
Twice In a Lifetime
.

"We're family friendly," Paxson Communications Corp. chairman and CEO Jeff Sagansky said. "A family unit can sit down and feel safe. There's not going to be programming that has to be explained away to kids.

"And we're averaging a 1.0 rating, up 25 percent in primetime for the first 13 weeks of the new season. We're obviously doing considerably better than Fox Family is."

For the third quarter, Fox Family was down 22 percent in primetime, to a 0.7 from a 0.9, according to Nielsen Media Research. In total day, where it caters to kids and tweens, Fox Family fared much better, up 33 percent to a 0.4 from a 0.3.

Some MSO officials believe Fox Family-which has made a $400 million commitment to programming-is now on the right track, despite its past ratings woes. They are ready to renew their affiliation deals, with license-fee increases.

"Haim Saban [chairman of Fox Family Worldwide Inc., Fox Family's parent] went out and made the investment," Cablevision president and CEO James Dolan said. "He didn't ask to do it on the cable operators' backs. He made the investment first in a pretty tough category, children and teens.

"He stayed inside the family mold. That's not always the programming that gets the best ratings, but it's programming we're proud to present. And Fox Family has done better, and will continue to do better. It deserves support, and I'm confident Haim will make the channel a success."

Comcast has already renewed its carriage deal with Fox Family.

At Classic Cable Inc., executive vice president of operations Ron Martin said the family-programming segment is important for his small-market subscribers. "Fox Family is headed in the right direction," he said.

Explained Saban, "When you do something like this, it takes a little time to find your voice."

Halleen, describing Fox Family's newest strategy, stressed that the service has made the transition "from being a network primarily that skewed over the age of 50 to one that really is well- balanced between kids, younger adults and older adults.

"Now what we're going through is how do you build that audience base, because when you make a conversion to the level we did, which had never been done in such scale as we did in mid-'98, we accept the losses of the older adults and now we need to grow the households," he added. "I still look at this whole process as a marathon, and not a sprint.

SLOW AND STEADY

"The pressure when you're in as many households as we're in is, 'sprint, sprint, sprint,' and find that break-out show that will define the entire network. While to some extent that was our strategy coming into the relaunch, 'Let's go all original, let's be very ambitious, and hope that one really breaks out and defines us,' now the revised strategy, the enhanced strategy, is: 'Let's go back to the basics. Let's start rebuilding this network with bricks, as opposed to taking chances.'"

So a year ago, Fox Family began rebuilding its library with "foundational programming," or recognizable product, according to Halleen.

Those acquisitions-part of a planned 10-year buying mode-started out with available shows such as
Who's the Boss?

and has escalated to higher-profile fare such as
Providence

and
Freaks & Geeks
.

"This is a huge commitment, and Haim is completely on board," Halleen said.

Fox Family, in part by teaming up with News Corp.'s FX to make theatrical acquisitions, has also upgraded its movie library with more contemporary titles, he added.

The network will continue its past strategy of using holidays such as Halloween and Christmas to air event programming and debut original made-for-TV movies and series. This year, for example, Fox Family will have 188 hours of holiday-related programming from Dec. 1 to Christmas Day on Dec. 25.

"Christmas has proven itself to us as being the best time of the year to bring the entire family in front of the set," Halleen said. "That's very hard to do, since the nature of viewing is not what it was like years ago. "

STUNT SUCCESS

Fox Family recently racked up some strong ratings with its "13 Days of Halloween" stunt. The event included five one-hour specials titled
Scariest Places on Earth.

Those specials-in which families were dared to spend a night in purportedly haunted castles, with the results then videotaped-was a successful run at programming that fits Fox Family's mandate, said Eytan Keller, Fox Family's executive vice president of reality programming and specials.
Scariest Places

was adult-oriented and had an edge, yet was suitable for kids, Keller said.

In terms of original movies, Halleen is plotting a "drastic change" from Fox Family's past strategy, which included some adventure tales. He wants the network to concentrate on high-quality, inspirational dramas and romantic comedies, similar to
Au Pair
, which delivered the largest audience in the history of the network.
Au Pair II

is now in production, and an authorized movie on tennis coach Richard Williams-father of champs Venus and Serena-is in development.

Fox Family will produce fewer made-for-TV movies a year, eight, but will put more promotional support behind each one, according to Halleen.

As for original series, he said, "We want to be more strategic and to brand our evenings with originals, as opposed to the entirety of our schedule."

The network has a dozen hour-long dramas and 14 half-hour shows in development. For its 30-minute shows, Fox Family will focus on "dramedies."

Halleen likened
State of Grace
, a "dramedy" set to bow in January, to
The Wonder Years
.

"I don't want to go and compete head-to-head against broadcast networks on sitcoms or multiple-camera type things, because we're not going to be able to compete to that extent," Halleen said. "What I'd rather do is be more creative about it, and create programming that's a little bit different. We need something that's refreshing."

Among the primetime reality shows in the hopper for next year is
Race Around the World.

The series-in which families compete to travel around the globe-combines elements of
National Lampoon's Vacation

and
Around the World in 80 Days
, according to Keller.

DOUBTING RIVALS

The whole issue of what constitutes family programming is subject to much debate among programmers, including Fox Family's rivals. Some, like Disney Channel general manager Rich Ross, question the notion of families sitting in the same room to watch the tube.

"For the most part, people are watching their own televisions in their rooms," Ross said. "We certainly believe families can watch us together. But for us, we have to be driven by kids."

Since Disney Channel is kid-driven day and night, it can use its daytime shows to promote its primetime lineup, Ross said. But if Fox Family is programming to kids during the day, it can't promote its adult-driven primetime shows to that audience then, he added.

As a result, "your audience flow becomes totally off kilter," according to Ross.

He doesn't think that having the word "family" in its title-or proclaiming an allegiance to family programming-helps Fox Family, either.

"We take the position that everyone you know is part of a family," Ross said. "Is that a positioning that drives a rating? It doesn't seem to be. The question is, 'What will a family watch?'"

Ross also described dramedies as "a deadly genre" that had failed in the past.

At Odyssey, which has 28 million subscribers, Loesch said the consistent game plan remains offering quality entertainment programming that's targeted to adults but appropriate for kids. As a model, Odyssey looks to the type of programming produced by its parent companies: Hallmark Entertainment Inc. and The Jim Henson Co.

While family members, in many cases, don't watch TV together, there are notable exceptions. Programming from Hallmark, such as the miniseries
Moby Dick
, does bring a family together to watch the same show, Loesch said.

And like Ross, she thinks it's hard for a network like Fox Family to transition from kids during the day to adults at night.

"It's hard to define family programming," said Ray Solley, an agent at the William Morris Agency. "Is it like
The Simpsons
? How do you translate that sensibility to the Fox Family cable channel?

"The place where there's audience-growth potential for Fox Family is the most difficult to define. It's not just the family genre but also going for an edgier, more contemporary in-your-face approach because of the Fox side of the equation. You need the right blend of Fox sensibility and family sensibility."

Halleen agreed that there are many ideas of what constitutes family programming, and many others taking their own stab at the category.

"There truly are many definitions of family," he said. "Some define it as targeting 9-to-14 and pulling down parents. We'd be Disney Channel if that's what we wanted to do.

"Some view it as only that programming which is from decades ago, when everything was happy and sweet and all of TV was wonderful. We'd be TV Land if that's what we wanted to become," he added. "And Pax and Odyssey-Pax more so between the two-view family programming as that which is appealing to the older demographic, over the age of 50, where they perform best. That's not what we see as family.

"We see there being many families earlier than that age," he continued. "Odyssey has its limitations in terms of its own schedule, and its distribution and the product that it has available. It's caught in one of those positions where you don't have the distribution to be able to get the ad revenue to make the larger purchases.

"The greatest advantage in our distribution-and the fact that we're locking up a number of these shows,
7th Heaven
,
Providence

and so on-is that there will be many more.

"Personally, as a viewer I love the fact that there are many options for families out there," Halleen concluded. "It makes it harder to have more competition, but for television-especially in the political environment right now-it's good to have more options for families."

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