On the eve of the first anniversary of its relaunch, Fox
Family Channel is about to embark on another repositioning, one that will be supported by
a raft of new primetime programming this fall.
A year ago this coming Sunday, Aug. 15, the Family
Channel's new ownership - Haim Saban's Saban Entertainment and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
- relaunched the service with a totally new program lineup, scrapping nearly all of the
network's former schedule.
The new game plan - driven by a $500 million programming
commitment - was to attract kids during the day and "contemporary" families at
night with kid-driven shows.
In many ways, it turned out to be a bumpy year. While Fox
Family officials said they've succeeded in attracting a younger audience instead of Family
Channel's dominant over-50 viewers, the exodus of older eyeballs helped drive down the
network's household ratings in a big way. And Fox Family continues to struggle with the
Holy Grail of all TV networks: finding a breakout hit show.
"The feedback from operators has been that they felt
the old channel was like underdeveloped beachfront property," Fox Family president
Rich Cronin said. "They think we're going in the right direction. But they are
looking for us to create a few breakthrough hits. We feel we're on track with that."
Starting this month through November, Fox Family will debut
a half-dozen series that reflect the network's new primetime philosophy: To develop
weightier shows that have adult appeal, but will also attract kids.
"The overall change in direction is series and
specials that have more substance and have a more inspirational slant to them than in the
past, like our original upcoming movie on St. Patrick," Cronin said.
At last month's Television Critics Association summer tour,
Cronin described the strategy switch.
"Our plan last year was to create 'TGIF'-style,
kid-driven programming in primetime that was equally appealing to children and
adults," Cronin told the critics. "Our new strategy for primetime is to develop
top-quality, adult-driven series, but series that are still family friendly. Now our fall
lineup reflects this change."
Perhaps one of Cronin's biggest coups has been his recent
luring of Rob Sorcher, who had been a top programmer at Cartoon Network, to serve as Fox
Family's executive vice president of programming and development. Sorcher's job will be to
find a hit, as well as to try and establish a strong new brand for the channel.
"For Fox Family, we've got to define ourselves as a
contemporary family network," Sorcher said.
Fox Family's current evening audience, from 6 p.m. on, is
20 percent kids two to 11, with its share of viewers 50-plus down to 31 percent. That
compares with 4 percent kids two to 11 before the relaunch, and 61 percent 50 and older.
"We really did change the audience composition,"
Cronin said, adding that the network had to "bite the bullet" and expected a
household-ratings decline when it dumped high-rated, older-skewing shows such as
In July, Fox Family's primetime household ratings were down
47 percent from a year ago, to a 0.8. Ad agencies are keeping an eye on the network, and
are looking for more progress.
"They did become younger and attracted a kids
audience, small as it is," said Allen Banks, executive media director at Saatchi
& Saatchi North America. "I appreciate that."
And while Banks said he supports - and is buying ad time -
on Fox Family, he questioned if Murdoch will have patience with it. And even as Cronin
downplayed the household numbers decline, others aren't.
"I'm still concerned about the ratings drop,"
said Kathleen Haesele, executive director of broadcast for Advanswers Media Inc.
"We'll see what happens with the programming changes they're making. They still have
a long way to go. They really do have to get some better programming."
Revamping its evening lineup, Fox Family will debut roughly
a half dozen original evening shows this fall, many of them reality or nature-based.
Extraordinary World of Animals, formerly titled Incredible Animals, will debut Aug. 16 and
air Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m.
Then Fox Family will sneak preview three new series - Magic
Tonight, World Gone Wild and Extreme Courage - on Sept. 10 and 11. They will go onto the
network's schedule in October.
Famous Families, which started out as a number of specials,
will evolve into a new weekly series in October. And Random Acts of Comedy, a game show
featuring improvisational comedy and hosted by David Alan Grier, will debut in November.
Cronin said Fox Family is also considering two potential shows for the fall: Real Heroes
and Real ER.
Recently, the network acquired The Partridge Family and
Who's the Boss? as interim programming while Sorcher gets his bearings. Who's the Boss?
will debut Labor Day with a five-hour marathon, and will be stripped weeknights at 6 p.m.
This fall, Fox Family will also debut a new preschool block
as well as several kids shows, including S Club 7 in Miami, which Fox Family hopes will be
another The Monkees.
A trio of 5 p.m. children's shows that Fox Family premiered
in July - Rotten Ralph, I Was a Sixth Grade Alien and Great Pretenders - have already
lifted the network's rating among kids 2 to 11 by 40 percent for that time period,
according to Cronin. "We're very happy with that," he said.
Cronin is quick to point out that Fox Family has been in an
expansion mode even during the relaunch. It will launch two digital channels on Halloween,
the boyzChannel and the girlzChannel.
And during the past 12 months, Fox Family's distribution
has increased to 74.5 million subscribers from 72.2 million, boosted in part by a Seattle
launch by AT&T Broadband and Internet Services. In New York City, Time Warner Cable
moved the network to a much lower and much more attractive channel slot, 14, from 66.
But not all cable operators are happy with Fox Family's new
"According to our subscribers, they changed something
that was working," said Doug Montandon, Galaxy Cablevision's vice president of
marketing and programming. "We've gotten numerous calls to our two call centers
asking, 'Why has it changed and who changed it?' Look at the ratings. They're out of the
Top 10. They're going after a younger demographic, but they had a stable and loyal
audience the past few years."