Saban, Cronin Tiptoe Through Minefields

Author:
Updated:
Original:

Haim Saban, chairman and CEO of Fox Family Worldwide Inc.,
often modestly refers to himself as a "cartoon schlepper," but he's much more
than that. Saban made his name and fortune in kids' television programming in large part
by revamping and repackaging a Japanese show, which became
Mighty Morphin Power
Rangers, and importing it to the United States. Now, he is a partner with News Corp. in
Fox Family Worldwide, which owns Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network on broadcast.

Since entering the cable industry with the purchase of Fox
Family, Saban has quickly made his mark. He now sits on the board of the National Cable
Television Association, and he has been using his strong Democratic Party ties -- he is a
major Democratic contributor -- to put forth the cable industry's agenda.

Saban and Rich Cronin, president and CEO of Fox Family and
Fox Kids, recently sat down to discuss the rocky road that Fox Family has faced in its
relaunch; the issue of media violence and kids; criticism of Power Rangers; the
politics of lobbying; and recent published reports that Rupert Murdoch is looking to buy
out Saban's stake in Fox Family. What follows is an edited version of the transcript of
the interview, which was conducted by
Multichannel News editor in chief Marianne
Paskowski and programming editor Linda Moss.

MCN: I wanted to touch base with you on the story in USA
Today
saying that Murdoch was going to buy your share of Fox Family. You issued a
denial. I'm wondering if you knew what the genesis of that story was, and I'm wondering
what kind of conversations you might have had with Murdoch as far as keeping him abreast
about what's happening at the channel, and what feedback you're getting from him, if any?

Saban: We both had a chuckle.

MCN: Over the story?Saban: Yeah, we both had a chuckle.
That's basically the only answer I can give you that summarizes the situation. He called
me up and he said, 'Can you believe this?' And I said, 'Hey, they know things you and I
don't.' So we laughed. And then we moved on to talk about this, that and the other. That
was the extent of the credit or attention we gave to this. Rupert issued a statement and
myself saying, you know, it ain't true.

MCN: Again, what feedback do you get from him? The story
made it seem like he was being impatient.

Saban: That's simply not true. He took his position. He
already said what his thinking was when they were on the road show, and in different
locations, that he and I are on absolutely the same page, and that it would take a little
time for this child to find his voice. And that's the beginning, the middle and the end of
it. And I think we're absolutely on the right track.

For us internally, between News Corp. and myself, we don't
have any issues. Everybody's got issues except for us, the principals. Isn't it funny?
Everybody's jumping up and down. Sorry to disappoint you guys, but it's not for sale.
Hollywood loves rumors. What are you going to do?

MCN: To get to the reason why you're now in the cable
industry -- your role in relaunching The Family Channel -- has that whole experience been
harder than you imagined?

Saban: Let me put it to you this way: We knew that we were
buying a family channel that was basically programming for senior citizens [group
laughter]. The numbers speak for themselves. It's not one man's opinion. You look at the
demographics and 65 percent were 50-plus. Am I correct, Rich?

Cronin: I think it was 61 percent.

Saban: [A total of] 61 percent was 50-plus, so we knew that
we were undertaking something that had never before been done in the industry, which was
getting rid of all of the old programs and loading the channel with original programs,
with a big commitment to it. And really, whenever you make that change, you're going to
have a bit of a bumpy road.

Frankly, added to that was the fact I was head of the
channel, head of programming, head of marketing, head of on-air, head of serving coffee --
head of everything for a few months.

NCM: That's until Rich came on.Saban: The person who's the
most grateful to Rich is my son, 10-year-old Ness, who, since Rich came on board, gets to
see me from time to time.

We had some events happen that we didn't predict could
happen and that we didn't expect to happen. Some of them we absolutely expected, so I may
as well jump right into it because I know it's going to come up.

We absolutely expected the household ratings to go down and
the demos to go up, and I think we're absolutely on track from that point of view. I think
the team is in place right now. I think Rich is supposed to get a very, very good team.
And now, with Rob Sorcher added as head of programming and Tom Lucas as head of marketing

Cronin: And John Burns.

Saban: John Burns as head of affiliates. Outside of ad
sales, there's one guy, I believe, from …

Cronin: From the old Family Channel.Saban: The old Family
Channel, which pretty much had to revamp. We had to revamp for basically two reasons --
one was geographic. We moved the channel to L.A. [Los Angeles] and, obviously, a lot of
people didn't want to move from Virginia. So that was their call. We gave them the
opportunity. And the second one was the philosophy on the channel, which is: We want to do
a family channel that is a true family channel.

MCN: How long is it going to take to get the channel to
where you want it to be and to get its ratings up?Cronin: Well, we're starting to launch
some of the new programming this summer. In July, during the kids' daypart, we launch Rotten
Ralph
and a couple of the other new shows. And then shows will be rolling in
throughout the fall and through the first quarter, so I think we'll start to see changes
with the launch of those shows

MCN: Part of the plan -- I guess in October or so -- is
launching your digital networks, The Girlz Channel and The Boyz Channel. MTV Networks has
had a pretty tough go of it getting distribution of its digital networks, 'The Suite.' Do
you think you're going to fare much better than MTVN did with your two digital channels?

Cronin: Frankly, we have bigger ideas for the channels. The
Boyz Channel and The Girlz Channel are some really terrific ideas and they're --
especially on the parents' side -- very pro-social. We've got great expertise within the
company on creating those networks, great expertise with kids in those families. And we
have a major marketing machine behind it with the opportunity to blast this out in 74
million homes on Fox Family Channel and 98 million on Fox Kids and our magazines, Web
sites, etc. So we're very optimistic about the distribution.

On the other hand, looking at the growth of digital
realistically, we think that we expect to be in 1 million homes by the end of this year.

MCN: Do you have a chance of getting on Headend in the Sky?
Are you talking to HITS?

Cronin: We're talking to everybody. Everybody, as you know,
is planning to launch digital networks sooner or later, and we want to make sure that
we're there with it sooner.

MCN: Were either one of you surprised at the
mini-controversy that flared when you said you were going to launch different channels for
boys and girls?

Cronin: No, I was actually expecting that, and I think a
little controversy would be good. I would be thrilled if Ted Koppel on Nightline devoted
a show or two to the whole idea of boys and girls channels.

MCN: Why did you anticipate it?Cronin: We anticipated that
people would think that this is stereotyping. But I had felt that cable television has had
great success with targeted branded networks. And if you think, in the world of kids and
families, that a targeted, branded network that superserves boys or girls by day, and then
superserves parents at night -- particularly, parents of girls getting their specific
information about how to raise girls, and parents of boys getting the information for them
-- I think this is a really big idea and really needed at this time.

You look at all of the research, and parents are desperate
for information about how to raise their kids. All of the issues around these tragic
shootings keep coming back to: Where were the parents? Why weren't the parents aware of
this? What can parents do now? What should parents watch out for? And we had this in
development long before these tragedies.

MCN: Rich, since the shootings in Littleton, Colo., have
you rethought your programming strategy at all? I'm thinking about some of the headlines
in the news about two broadcast networks responding by pulling shows that they deemed were
too violent -- I believe it was CBS that pulled its plan for a mob series. Are you
rethinking the kinds of cartoons that you air, for example?

Cronin: No, we're not. We actually from the beginning have
said that we want to, on The Boyz Channel and Girlz Channel during the day, give kids the
shows that they wanted. We're doing a ton of research with kids.

MCN: We're talking about the core channels -- Fox Family
and the Fox Kids broadcast channel.

Cronin: Well, let me first talk about Boyz and Girlz, and
go on to those.

MCN: OK.

Cronin: We had the idea of saying that boys and girls would
be able to select these shows and help us create the original shows, but it would always
be with input from our advisory board. And we have an advisory board that includes the
best experts on child psychology and on raising boys and girls.

In fact, one of our advisory-board members, Dr. Bill
Pollack, was on The Oprah Winfrey Show a week before the Littleton tragedy saying
that if boys don't learn to express themselves through words and through tears, then
they're going to express themselves through bullets. This happened before the Littleton
tragedy.

Immediately after the tragedy, he was on that show, and he
was on CBS This Morning and everywhere else because he is one of the leading
experts on boys. We think to be able to provide parents every night with some information
on raising boys is really important and timely -- and on raising girls.

Back to your question, we also think that we will make sure
that we are offering boys and girls a mix of different genres from cartoons, live action,
etc. This is what we talked about in our advisory-board meeting -- really what kind of
programming will celebrate boys, celebrate girls and inform parents.

For Fox Family Channel, during the kids' daypart, we have
really focused our branding efforts for our original programming on creating quirky
contemporary entertainment. And I think if you were at our kids' upfront presentation, you
saw the kinds of shows we have, from Rotten Ralph to Angela Anaconda to all
of the others that really have that quirky kind of comedy focus.

It doesn't mean that all of our shows are animated
comedies, but it means that's sort of the brand personality, so we have few
action-oriented shows on Fox Family Channel, but that's really not what Fox Family Channel
is all about.

MCN: Well, that's something I wanted to ask you about.
There's a very definite split in terms of the programming philosophy of Fox Family for
kids versus Fox Kids on broadcast, and I guess I wanted to direct this to Haim. Power
Rangers
is on Fox Kids broadcast, and that's a show that has gotten a lot of criticism
over the years on two levels for …

Saban: Totally unjustifiably.

MCN: OK, I want to ask you about that, in terms of violence
and in terms of merchandising toward kids, but in terms of the action and violence. What
do you say to the critics on that, especially in light of Littleton?

Saban: Let me start off on the merchandise. I hope that we
reach the Star Wars level is my answer on that. And I think we should take Star
Wars
off, because it's too merchandised. It's causing my son's bar mitzvah savings to
be hurt. That's my answer on merchandise.

I also think that [The Walt] Disney [Co.] stores and Warner
Bros. stores should close, let alone Rugrats -- all of the Rugrats
merchandise, Rugrats videos. Quit it already. Shut Disney, shut Warner Bros., shut Star
Wars
, shut Rugrats, and then we're going to have a conversation about Power
Rangers
[group laughter].

MCN: Let's put it this way: Whenever I talk to Nickelodeon,
they say the difference between them and you is that they come up with the program ideas
first, and the merchandise comes out of it. And they'll say about you that the idea came
for the merchandise first, and then comes the show.

Saban: Please quote me: They're full of soup. I'll debate
[Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell] any day of the week. No, I won't go that low. Forget
it. We're on the record. I won't go that low.

MCN: So you don't see eye-to-eye with them on that, huh?
Let's get off the merchandising and get back to the violence and the accusations that Power
Rangers
is a violent show.

Saban: I disagree fully that Power Rangers can be
lumped in with so-called violent shows. Power Rangers is a fantasy show, and kids
can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Power Rangers deals with pigs who come down to Earth to
eat all of the food on Earth. That's one of our bad guys, and we have many of those. We
have all kinds of weirdos, OK, so I can tell you that it is definitely a fantasy show
that's filled with action and that teaches the virtues and art of martial arts.

As the father of a 10-year-old, I make sure that my son
never misses his martial-arts lesson. And I see absolutely nothing wrong with martial arts
-- absolutely nothing wrong as a parent or as a programmer.

MCN: Maybe put more broadly speaking, beyond Power
Rangers
, Les Moonves of CBS said anyone who thinks media violence isn't part of the
problem is nuts. Then Seagram Co. CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. said violence isn't a media
problem -- it's a society problem. Where do you fall on those two sides of the argument?

Saban: First of all, I want to clarify the following
factor: I want to separate the clear, unequivocal, indisputable difference between Fox
Family Channel and Fox Kids Network. Even those shows that are criticized -- unjustifiably
criticized -- and that get an 'FV' rating [fantasy violence] don't appear on Fox Family
Channel. So everything that we are talking about only relates to Fox Kids Network.

Are we clear on that? I don't want this to come out that
this is all one big mishmash, because Fox Family Channel doesn't even go there. It's more
of a quirky comedy type.

So, with that clarified, what I would like to say about
media violence is that all of these movies, all of these TV series, all of these video
games that are being accused of influencing kids to go out and be violent are
[distributed] throughout the world -- everywhere, in all countries of the world. Nowhere
do kids go out with guns in school. Shouldn't we ask ourselves a question about this?

I would like us all to step back, take a deep breath and
ask ourselves a few questions for one purpose only: so that we can draw the right
conclusions in order to address the problem.

We all, collectively, as Americans, do have a problem, and
we need to address it. But we cannot cure cancer with aspirin. You can't cure cancer with
aspirin. You need to cure cancer with chemotherapy and with surgery. And the problem is
guns. The problem, for crying out loud, is guns.

We're not as good as the NRA [National Rifle Association]
at lobbying on the Hill. We, as an industry, are not as good as the NRA. They won't even
talk to us.MCN: You do try. The New York Times recently cited Saban Entertainment
as one of the National Democratic Party's bigger contributors -- $300,000 in soft
contributions.

Saban: It was a lot more than that.MCN: Well, OK. However,
Republicans charge that contributors like you are trying to buy protection on the
TV-violence issue from President Clinton. How do you respond to remarks like that?

Saban: They're lying.

MCN: You've held fund-raisers for Clinton.

Saban: What does this have to do with anything? I got my
butt kicked at the White House two years ago by the vice president [Al Gore] like nobody.
He singled out one program -- Power Rangers. Well, there were a lot of Republicans
sitting there with a lot of shows that are a lot more offensive than Power Rangers
ever was or ever will be. What does the vice president have to do to criticize Power
Rangers
, Mr. Big Contributor? I got my ass kicked [group laughter]. How do you explain
that?

MCN: I guess you just have to get lobbyists as good as
those from the NRA.

Saban: I'm giving you facts, guys.

MCN: I don't doubt it.

Saban: I'm just telling you that this is the reality of
life. I contributed to the support of the Democratic Party before I got my butt kicked and
after I got my butt kicked [group laughter].

MCN: Didn't you learn a lesson?

Saban: There's no connection. The point I'm trying to make
is this: You will never agree with any politician whom you opt to support with 100 percent
of his position. The world doesn't work that way. You are going to agree on most of the
important positions, but you will disagree on some others

MCN: In all seriousness, you mentioned that the
entertainment industry hasn't done as good of a job lobbying Washington as the NRA would
have. What can be done about that?

Saban: Well, I think we need to do two things. We need to
absolutely self-regulate. I don't think government should get into this. We should
self-regulate ourselves. We need to look at other programs -- in terms of movies, video
games and music, what have you -- and be a little more sensitive to the situation. I agree
with that.

The second thing is that we need to devise a mechanism to
explain to the lawmakers and the elected officials in Washington and locally -- and to
make them aware of this pure fact that I mentioned before -- that in no country in the
world where the same product airs as here do they have this phenomenon.

It means that we have one more thing in this country that
they don't have in all of those countries, and that one more thing is called G, U, N, S:
guns.

You cannot throw video games or Power Ranger stories
at anybody and hurt them. But you can pull a gun and shoot bullets, and it's absolutely
ludicrous that what we're dealing with is: Do we pass banning assault weapons, or don't we
pass it?

There should be no guns, forget guns. Guns are for
policemen [chasing] robbers. But in this country, anybody can walk in and just pick up
guns: It's crazy, absolutely lunacy. And when I listen to this bill and that bill and how
they try to -- semiautomatic, with the kind of ammunition that doesn't fire this way and
fires that way -- forget it. Ban guns. Goodbye.

MCN: Regarding the horrible tragedy at Columbine High
School, have you tried to put your two cents in, if you will, on any of this with the
White House and that special summit?

Saban: Me? I was not invited. Me? I didn't call anybody.
Nobody called me. I'll tell you what we did do.

Cronin: Actually, we had put this together before the
tragedy in Littleton, and we worked with counselors across the country: a PSA
[public-service announcement] campaign called "Check Yourself." That was all
about helping kids to control their emotions and their anger, and we have since stepped up
that program.

But that was in place before the tragedy. We knew that this
was an issue that was simmering, so we're really plugged into some of the problems that
boys, girls and parents are facing these days.

MCN: Spinning off from that, as Saban mentioned before,
obviously, you decided to use very different programming styles for Fox Kids, which is
very cheeky, and where Power Rangers does have a home, and Fox Family Channel,
where, as you said, there is no fantasy violence. Why did you take those two different
strokes with those two different outlets for kids?

Cronin: One other thing before we get off the political
thing. I just wanted to say that Haim coming into the cable industry, with all of his
Democratic Party relationships, has really been beneficial to the industry. He works very
closely with [NCTA president] Decker [Anstrom] in helping to make those connections and
helping to make sure that the cable industry's agenda was being heard clearly by the
Democratic leaders. And in fact, last year, after the Western Show, Haim put together a
dinner at his house with [Rep.] Dick Gephardt [D-Mo.], a small dinner ...

MCN: The helicopter ride?

Cronin: You heard about that.

MCN: I saw them being gathered.Cronin: But it was really a
great way to make that connection. And I think Haim's interest in politics and his
involvement over the years has been a real benefit now to the cable industry, because many
of the cable industry's leaders are Republicans, and they have Republican connections.

But to have those Democratic connections and personal
relations that Haim brings to the party -- from President Clinton to Dick Gephardt to
[Sen.] Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] to [California] Gov. Gray Davis -- I think has been a real
help.

MCN: What about when you had contact with those top
Democrats? What is the cable agenda that you're trying to send across to them?Saban: Look,
you have to realize that these top politicians are pitched all day long, 1,000 agendas.
It's only about having the ability to have our case heard. That's all it is: to have your
case heard, and to explain our side of the equation. That's all.

The ability to be able to sit in a relaxed manner in a
room, to have a delicious dinner, to talk about life and everything, and then to spend a
half-hour just discussing the industry -- that's allowing us, the industry leaders, to
hear the lawmakers' point of view, and allowing them to hear our point of view, and
developing the dialogue that eventually results in a better situation for our viewers.

I mean, what this is all about at the end of the day is the
ability to be heard, and I think it's very important to be able to put your case
forth.MCN: And your involvement in politics certainly precedes your involvement with
cable. You've been politically active for many years, right?

Saban: Yeah, sure.

MCN: Why the interest in politics?

Saban: Well, you can live in a cocoon and ignore your
environment, and just enjoy your life and not give a damn about anything, or you can care.
I can't help it. I care.

MCN: Do you try to monitor what your kids watch? Do you
look at the video games they play?Saban: Oh, sure I do. First of all, at that age, we buy
the video games they play, even if it's paid by their allowance most of the time. They
don't go to the store and buy for themselves. So absolutely, we monitor, and absolutely,
we know ahead of time which channels [they're watching].

And they know that there are a certain number of channels
they are allowed to go to, which brings me back to: If parents are doing, for instance,
what my wife and I do with our kids, we'd have a 10 rating every night, because we have a
number of channels that we can go to, and obviously, Fox Family Channel would be one of
them.

MCN: What channels don't you allow them to see?Saban: I
don't let my son go, for example, to the pay channels. Even on the broadcast channels,
it's only the pre-8 p.m. [shows] he can watch, when they air the off-network shows. He
likes to watch The Simpsons and Home Improvement. So we pretty much have
kind of honed in on the programs he is allowed to watch.

MCN: So you really closely monitor what they're watching,
in terms of both video and TV?

Saban: Absolutely. That's our job. That's not Washington's
job: It's our job. What, we're going to have lawmakers monitor 98 million homes? How can
we do that? That's impossible. We need to do a better job as a nation of educating the
parents who don't monitor their kids. That's what we need to put our focus on.

MCN: Haim, do you believe in the V-chip and the ratings
system in terms of helping to educate parents about their children are watching?

Saban: It's going to be one of the mechanisms. I don't
think it's enough. We need to go on the constructive side and educate parents to work
closer with their kids. The V-chip could be one of the mechanisms, I don't know. Only time
will tell how effective the V-chip is.

I, frankly, am on the fence on this, because I don't know
how rapid the deployment of the hardware will be that allows for that. And I don't know
how many people change how many TVs a year, so it's got a hardware angle to it that is
crucial to its success, so I don't know.

MCN: What do you see as ideal family programming, then?
What should you be putting on and what should parents ...

Saban: Everything that's on Fox Family Channel [group
laughter]. That's it. I'm not saying anything more.

Cronin: We really think that the big idea at Fox Family
Channel is contemporary family entertainment. And in making the shift from the old Family
Channel, which had shows that really had older appeal, to shows that are contemporary, I
think that if you look at some of the shows that are out there -- if you want me to go
beyond our network, I'm happy to -- I really think that King of the Hill, Seventh
Heaven
, Everybody Loves Raymond, those kinds of shows ...

Saban: Home Improvement.

Cronin: ... are shows that are contemporary family hits.
But in the same way, I think, there is some value to some of the historical dramas,
historical movies that have been out in the last year, from Moby Dick to Joan of
Arc
to Noah's Ark, etc.

So I think that we are really focusing on being a
contemporary family network. We are not trying to do old-fashioned dramas that have an
older appeal. We want to have a mix of genres that the family can sit down and watch
together, that have some innovation, some hipness to them.

MCN: Hey Rich, 'hip' meaning Ally McBeal? There were
some crazy rumors floating around that your company was buying it? Did you?

Cronin: Well, we have everybody out there, including the
Fox people and people from every other studio, come in and pitch us on what programming
they have available. And we, of course, pick those pitches. And we always say at the
beginning of the meeting that our focus is on original programming.

We may pick up an acquired show here or there to fill out a
schedule, but really, that would be just short-term. Long-term, we would really like to be
all-original. That's where we put our money, and it's obvious in the change that we've
made from the old Family Channel to new. But we are not looking at Ally McBeal.

MCN: Rich, do you think that people -- cable programmers,
viewers, me, whoever -- really understand what your channel is all about? At his upfront,
Pax TV CEO Jeff Sagansky said: 'Family? Fox Family? Don't they do cartoons?' and he kind
of dissed your channel. Do you have an image problem?

Cronin: I don't think we have an image problem. I think we
have a great opportunity, and that is to marry the best attributes of Fox. Fox is a
terrific brand, and the best attributes have to do with innovations, hipness, youth and
freshness. And to marry that with Family -- which is all about wholesome, safe, warmth --
to put those two together is something that has never been done before.

I gave you examples of some of the shows. There have been
individual shows over the years that have done that, that have achieved that, but there's
never been a network that has been all about that. Nickelodeon is all about kids by day
and classic TV hits by night. And Cartoon Network is all about cartoons.

Disney Channel is probably the closest -- a family network
that's kids by day and adults by night. But it has really gone from more of a kids-driven
nighttime strategy or program perspective. It also has the Disney name and Disney
heritage, which is much more conservative and traditional than the Fox name.

So we think we have a big opportunity, and that this Fox
plus Family is the family entertainment of the future because it is much more contemporary
than anything that's been done before.

What Pax TV is doing is basically the old Family Channel
strategy. I just read about its whole strategy, and the basis of its primetime is going to
be Touched by an Angel reruns at 9 p.m. and Diagnosis Murder reruns at 10
p.m.

MCN: Right.

Cronin: And then clones of those shows at other places -- Hope
Island
, and these other things -- which seem to be the same kind of formula. Now I'm
thrilled if they're doing that, because that is the kind of old-fashioned family
entertainment that attracts a big 50-plus audience, and we're not going after the 50-plus
audience. So they're welcome to it.

We really want contemporary family entertainment that
actually will attract families, meaning households that will have kids at home. And that's
our big opportunity. We think it's huge.

MCN: Have you begun to look yet at what Odyssey Channel has
started to do in terms of changing its network?

Cronin: I've read a little about what they've picked up,
but I think it's too early to tell.

MCN: What's your situation in terms of your affiliation
deals with operators? What's your status with those contracts?

Cronin: The contracts are really spread out over the next
nine years, coming up with different operators at different times. But there are no big
ones coming up at the end of this year. So we have time to really get the network where we
want it. And I think considering that it's only been nine months since we revamped the
lineup, we're well on target to where we want to be.

MCN: Rich, is it safe to say that you've really seen no
impact from the MSO consolidation in terms of renewing contracts and things like that?

Cronin: We haven't had any contracts up. Part of our
advantage is that our rates are so low compared with our competition -- I mean, with an
average of 15 cents, and we've been out there for 20 years, that's really incredibly low.
I think it's less of an issue for us than it is for our competitors.

Because of low rates and because our contacts are spread
out over nine years -- and I think also because Fox Family Channel is a family network --
we really are great for community image.

MCN: All you've got to do is get those ratings up, Rich.

Cronin: And we think we've got the programs in place to
make that happen, so we think we're on track.

Related