The Family Channel, boasting a "wholesome" yet
sassy new Fox "attitude," relaunches at high noon on August 15th as really two
networks: a daytime channel aimed at children and a primetime outlet aimed at families.
The network is being reincarnated as the Fox Family Channel
through $500 million worth of original programming and $100 million in promotion. And Fox
Family will face hungry competitors on both the fronts it's decided to tackle -- kids and
Players such as Nickelodeon, the dominant kid in the
sandbox, as well as Disney Channel and Cartoon Network, have staked deep claims in the
cutthroat children's TV market.
On the family side, new rivals are surfacing. Pax TV debuts
Aug. 31, while The Odyssey Channel sometime this year is expected to evolve into a
family-oriented service when it gets a $100 million infusion -- in cash and programming --
from Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark Entertainment.
Both Pax Net and Odyssey are expected to have an
"inspirational" tone, and because of that could lure old Family Channel viewers
who might be disillusioned by the network's new format.
The Aug. 15 Fox Family relaunch is one of the most massive
makeovers of a network in recent history, and represents a $1.9 billion gamble on the part
of News Corp. and Saban Entertainment. They shelled out that hefty sum last year to
acquire Family, with its mass distribution of 72 million homes, from International Family
Entertainment Inc. And they paid Cronin a $20 million package to lure him from Nick at
Nite's TV Land.
Future distribution, as well as a host of new competitors,
could prove to be another challenge for Fox Family. A number of MSO programming officials
have expressed qualms about Fox's plan to adopt a "quirky" new format and dump
all of the old Family Channel's shows, with the exception of former part-owner Pat
Robertson's The 700 Club.
"My reaction is irrelevant," said Jedd Palmer,
MediaOne's senior vice president of programming. "The issue is how will my customers
react to the loss of very, very family, value-oriented programming and the Family Channel
turning into an edgier children's network. ... Will my customers be upset not to have this
extraordinary safe place to park their families?"
In contrast to the naysayers, Fox Family president Rich
Cronin maintained last week that he is getting enthusiastic feedback from the operators.
Barry Rosenblum, president of Time Warner Cable in New York
City, thought the new plan "was great," according to Cronin.
The Big Three broadcast networks have abandoned the family
audience at night, leaving a huge void that Fox Family intends to help fill, Cronin said.
He's downplaying Fox Family's cable competition, saying it will snare audience from
"The big money is in primetime, and we are starting it
early at 6 p.m.," he said. "We are still the Family Channel with a family
audience, but with more kids. ... We'll offer something different and we'll get viewers
from ABC, CBS and NBC."
In fact, Cronin has backed away from his initial comments,
in which he said he saw the irreverence of The Simpsons as being a model for Fox
Family. Now he is stressing the fact that Fox Family will be all "TVG-rated,"
positioning it as a safe haven for families.
"We have to make sure they [MSOs] understand our
strategy, that it is just a pinch of Fox and a whole lot of family," Cronin said.
"Fox Family will be quirky and funny and contemporary. It won't be sexy and it won't
have violence. We're 100 percent family-friendly."
While Cronin is upbeat, at least two MSOs, in fact, are
legally checking their affiliation deals with Family Channel to see if they can drop the
service because of the programming turnaround.
And a Time Warner spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of
Rosenblum, said, "We like the concept of some of the new [Fox Family] programming,
but obviously, like everyone else, we haven't seen it yet. But conceptually, it sounds
like an improvement."
There's a lot of money riding on the Fox Family relaunch,
which will be heavily promoted on the Fox Kids broadcast network the day it kicks off, as
well as being supported by a multimedia ad campaign. This weekend, specials on teen
heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and the Spice Girls will air.
"What they're really doing is launching two
networks," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for the Katz
Television Group. "They're using a hipper Nickelodeon model."
Madison Avenue, never comfortable with the Family Channel's
religious tone under Robertson, is taking a wait-and-see approach to the changes.
"Did anyone ever think Family Channel was a
must-buy?" asked one media buyer.
Fox Family wooed ad agency officials last Wednesday with a
party in Manhattan celebrating the relaunch.
Jon Mandel, Grey Advertising's director of national
broadcast, credits Fox and ergo Fox Family with "having a marvelous marketing machine
in place," superior to a Turner Broadcasting System Inc. or USA Network.
"They'll [Fox] manage to get people to the set,"
Mandel said. "The question is whether America will like the shows."
Fox Family's daytime schedule will include Shining Time
Station and The New Captain Kangaroo, abruptly interrupted by The 700 Club
from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Fox Family will start its primetime early, running original
shows from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., with movies from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. The 700 Club then
airs again, from 11 p.m. to midnight.
Fox Family's primetime schedule, which was lambasted by
writers at the Television Critics Association summer tour, includes several reality-based
video series very similar to past Fox broadcast shows, with clips of car chases and the
Also on the primetime lineup is a game show starring
ex-National Basketball Association star John Salley, called I Can't Believe You Said
That!, in which two families compete to win prizes by revealing family secrets. At the
TCA, Salley described the show as "what Jerry Springer is trying to do without the
Peggy Charren, the veteran children's television activist,
said that Salley's game show doesn't sound as if it will do much in the way of promoting
trust, "and that is what family is all about."
But, she added, "This is the Fox Family Channel, and
nothing about Fox surprises me."
At first glance media buyers said the daytime and primetime
schedule, which will be boosted by $125 million in original movies, doesn't appear to have
any breakout shows.
"We knew Fox acquired the Family Channel as an outlet
for kids' programming," said Audrey Steele, senior vice president of strategic media
resources at Zenith Media. "But I'm very surprised at the rather bland-sounding
lineup they have planned. It sounds like every Fox [broadcast] special rolled into one.
Yet Fox Kids' image is alternative, edgy, maverick, dare to be different."
Predictably, Fox Family's rivals predicted that the
revamped network faces a tough time, particularly with its primetime strategy of offering
shows that will appeal to entire families, from kids to teens to young parents.
"That's a lot to bite off with programming that
doesn't have any breakthrough stuff," Cartoon president Betty Cohen said. "It's
hard to look at their schedule and figure out where the hits are going to be."
Added Cyma Zarghami, Nick's general manager, "It is
really hard to target that many demographics at once. ... It's hard to position that, to
be all things to all people."
In contrast to Fox Family, Cartoon and Nick are
specifically targeting kids, not families, in primetime, with much success.
Cartoon, which just started stripping its original Dexter's
Laboratory and Cow and Chicken in primetime, saw a 31 percent surge in its July
primetime ratings. And Nick's ratings gains to date, by edging into primetime with kids'
shows, has given it the incentive to expand even later, to 9 p.m., with its new
Nickel-O-Zone beginning Aug. 31.
Anne Sweeney, president of Disney Channel -- and believed
to be heir-apparent to The Walt Disney Co.'s former cable chief, Geraldine Laybourne --
said that Fox Family is "very cognizant" of Disney's success targeting kids
during the day and families at night -- the very strategy that the relaunched network is
Targeting families in primetime "goes beyond
programming to The Walt Disney Co.," Sweeney said. "There's heritage to that
According to Cronin, Fox Family is taking a very different
approach than either Disney Channel or Pax Net in primetime. Pax TV, created by
born-again-Christian Lowell Paxson, will air "feel-good" off-network fare such
as Touched By An Angel.
Unlike Fox Family, Disney airs movies at 7 p.m. "It
has a different sensibility than us," Cronin said.
And he dismissed Pax TV as "a rerun channel."
CBS Entertainment veteran Jeff Sagansky, now president and
CEO of Paxson Communications Corp. TV, claimed that his Pax TV network isn't competing
with Fox Family or Odyssey, which hasn't revealed details of its impending relaunch yet.
"There is a huge underserved family market,"
Sagansky said. "It can support multiple services. We're trying to tap into the entire
family universe and promote positive role models that a family can watch together without
feeling embarrassed. We're based on two important values: faith and family."
Cronin said that after reviewing all the programming, Pat
Robertson has written a letter to his 700 Club members, as well as top MSO
officials, essentially giving his imprimatur to the changes.
And there's been another vote of confidence for the
relaunch, he added. More than 700 cable systems, representing 50 million subscribers, are
taking part in the "Watch and Win" promotion that Fox Family is running as part
of the relaunch.