Family Channel Focuses on The Inoffensive

Gains in original programming, viewership

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WEARY of TV series about tough cops wasting drug lords and rapists? Jaded by talk-show interviews with ``parents of slain prostitutes'' or ``lovers of suicidal AIDS victims?'' You won't find themes like those on the Family Channel, a burgeoning cable network that defines itself as much by what it doesn't show as what it does. The working philosophy is that at no time during their 24-hour programming schedule will you find anything that could make anyone in the family uncomfortable, uptight, or out of sorts watching alone or together.

``We felt that there was a dramatic need for a service devoted totally to traditional family values,'' says Tim Robertson, president of the 13-year-old Virginia-based network that grew out of his father Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network. ``That need has increased dramatically in the last three to four years.''

Instead of jumping on the so-called ``reality-'' and ``trash-'' TV bandwagon, the Family Channel (designated ``FAM'' in listings) has filled its schedule with enough comedies, classic movies, Westerns, children's shows, dramas, and adventures to make it the fifth largest basic cable network in the country. (USA, TNT, TBS, and ESPN are the top four.)

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The network can be seen in 48.5 million homes, about 43 million more than the other ``family'' network - the Disney Channel, on pay cable. The Family Channel is already presenting four original half-hour, prime-time series, and with the expenditure of an additional $100 million, it will soon have a total of eight.

``There is very little television fare left anymore that the average family can sit down and watch together after 8 p.m.,'' says Dr. Jim Loper, executive director of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. ``With the burgeoning number of channels out there - upwards of 50 most places - there definitely should be one that conveys this kind of material. [The Family Channel] is filling that gap.''

Although continues to air some religious programming, with three-and-a-half hours of ``The 700 Club'' daily as well as early-morning Bible shows, the mix is about 78 percent entertainment. And access to the channel has done nothing but grow - from 28 million households in May 1985 to 35.8 million two years later, to its current 48.4 million homes.

``At `Fam,' we say let's have programs that celebrate love and life,'' adds Robertson. ``Let's talk about values between husbands and wives and children, where they can have loving, caring relationships in which children aren't smart alecks and the parents aren't buffoons. We feel there is a very clearly identifiable niche that exists there, for both viewers and cable operators alike.''

So far that has meant an ever-revolving spate of so-called ``evergreen'' series: Westerns such as ``Bonanza,'' ``Wagon Train,'' ``Gunsmoke,'' and ``The Big Valley''; family-centered sitcoms such as ``Hazel'' and ``Father Knows Best''; detective and spy series such as ``Hardcastle an McCormick,'' ``Scarecrow and Mrs. King,'' ``Remington Steele.''

But a large part of the channel's philosophy is to create original series that will sustain viewership. Last year, the network programmed ``Bordertown,'' a Western with a twist. A small town that straddles the US-Canadian border, it is ruled on one side by a gum-chewing, rough-hewn US Marshall with an itchy trigger finger. On the other side is a clean-shaven, polished, and polite Canadian mountie who likes to do everything by the book. The series became the No. 1 original series on basic cable.

Neither of the two principal characters drink or smoke, in keeping with the channel's philosophy that role models should not indulge those vices. Nor do any of the series portray easy acceptance of casual or extramarital sex.

Last month, the channel premi`ered ``Zorro,'' a new series about the swashbuckling defender of old Spanish California. Filmed in Spain, the new series has challenged ``Bordertown'' (which is filmed in Vancouver) for the No. 1 spot.

The other original series are ``Rin Tin Tin: Canine Cop,'' a modern-day extension of the original, and ``T and T,'' starring Mr. T as a private-eye with a soft spot for the young and helpless.

``Our competition sinks all their money into five or six movies a year for stuff that's only a one-shot deal, but the smarter way is developing original series - it's been the backbone of network delivery systems since the days of radio,'' says Paul Krimsier, vice-president for programming.

To counterprogram the network films, Krimsier says the channel puts on its ``Family Channel Movie'' every day, Monday through Saturday, from 8 to 10 p.m. Programmers stay away from such fare as slasher movies and teenage comedies like ``Porkies.'' More common are the Bogart, Stewart, Gable, and Fonda classics. ``You won't see `Murder on Elm Street' on the Family Channel,'' says Krimsier.

In spite of the emphasis on series, the channel airs 10 to 12 original films each year as well. Coming this month will be ``Zorro: The Legend Begins'' - a two-hour special on the origins of the masked swordsman, and ``Last Train Home,'' starring Ned Beatty.

The Family Channel has received its share of criticism over the years. Dr. Loper says the values inherent in old-style family shows like ``Father Knows Best'' reflect an idyllic time in the nation's past that no longer exists, if it ever did. And there has been many a letter criticizing the shoot-'em-up violence of many Westerns the network clusters for seven-plus hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

``We make exceptions for Westerns and war movies because the violence is part of what actually went on and is far from most people's daily lives,'' says Krimsier. ``They don't put fear in you of walking down a dark street at night or make you afraid to go camping.'' Besides, says Krimsier, in Westerns, good always triumphs over evil.

TV Guide recently poked fun at at the channel for carrying a week of Jerry Lewis movies. ``Is this a master plan to reacquaint the world with ... questionable comedic talents?'' asked their ``Cheers 'n' Jeers'' columnist.

The Family Channel story began in 1960, when a young preacher named Pat Robertson bought a defunct TV station in Portsmouth, Va., for $37,000, and named it the Christian Broadcasting Network. Three years later, he created the religion-based ``700 Club,'' with 700 viewers each contributing $10 a month.

In 1977, Robertson followed Home Box Office and Atlanta superstation TBS onto RCA's Satcom I satellite, as the third national cable channel. Programming was all religious. By 1981, Robertson had renamed the operation the CBN Cable Network and altered the mix to offer 75 percent family entertainment, with such programs as ``The Life of Riley'' and ``The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.'' Later, others followed: ``Gentle Ben,''``Jack Benny,'' ``International Showtime,'' ``Father Knows Best.''

In 1988, CBN became the ``CBN Family Channel.'' Then last August, the ``CBN'' was dropped altogether, when the Family Channel became a separate entity for tax purposes. No longer, said the IRS, could the nonprofit CBN hold onto the profit-making cable arm. But the network sees the change as one of marketing as well.

``People either confused CBN with CNN (Cable News Network) or thought we were an all-religious service,'' says Krimsier. ``We had to position ourselves so that people knew what we were trying to be.''

Although most of its programs appeal across the generations, the Family Channel does not avoid more targeted programming. Twenty-six hours are devoted to kids' shows, including the 8-10 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. time slots Monday through Friday. Series include ``Teddy Ruxpin'' - a loveable bear - and ``Gerbert,'' a puppet who helps kids get through intimidating situations from the dentist to birthday parties.

For women there are ``American Baby,'' a program on caring for infants, and ``Healthy Kids,'' a new talk show about the problems of youngsters.

None of the fare is so exclusive that a member of another generation could not watch it. `Nickelodeon has spots come on that say, `Chase your parents out of the room.' We don't believe in that,'' says Rick Busciglio, vice-president for marketing.

Formed as a commercial network in 1981, the Family Channel first became profitable in 1984. It gets about 70 percent of its revenue from commercials, which average $1,630 per 30 seconds in prime time. Thirty percent of its income comes from cable companies, which pay the channel 8 cents per month per subscriber.

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