This is the Family Channel… Signing Off

This is the Family Channel… Signing Off
Tom Anthony
Port Folio Weekly August 18-24 1998

There is no more Family Channel. At least not the way you knew it. Master Control at the CBN complex in Virginia Beach ended the satellite uplink of programs from here to the world at large last week. Only the 700 club will continue to emanate from CBN land. Scores of local people have received – or very quickly will receive pink slips from the company Pat Robinson built and just sold to Fox for over one Billion dollars. That’s Billion, with a capitol B. Outside of the income related upheaval for hundreds of your newly unemployed neighbors, the impact on national television will be minimal… thanks to the plans of Bud Paxson. So who is Bud Paxson, and why should you care? Paxson is the guy who invented the Home Shopping Network and made a ton of money selling it off. Why you would find all this interesting is more in how such a mammoth void, like Fox is creating, is made.

It’s seems to be a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. Fox is going far away from the audience The Christian Broadcasting Network and later the Family Channel cultivated. That’s no accident. The research showed an audience a little older than the average cable channel, so when Fox came up with their version of family programming it was aimed at a young crowd. Although the positioning statements in the Fox Family press releases don’t say so specifically, the line up is aimed almost exclusively at young kids and teens. It’s the apparent goal of Fox Family to attract really young viewers and get the parents to watch. That’s not really a new marketing ploy. Look at what Ronald the clown did for McDonalds. And like fast food, this is indeed big business.

That leads to the subject of Bud Paxson, the quirky founder of Pax TV. Although not his first excursion into broadcasting, the Home Shopping Network is probably Paxson’s best known. He has also traded in radio stations and owns The Travel Channel, a full time cable television channel devoted to travel and tourism. More importantly, Paxson owns the largest group of TV stations in the country. Starting next week, one of them will be broadcasting on channel 49 from an industrial park in Virginia Beach. The target audience is that big void created by Fox. The slogan of Pax TV tells it all – we are family. “Well we’re certainly not kids TV.” says Martin Snead, General Manager of the new station.

Come August 31st Snead and 85 of his counterparts across the country will turn on what Paxson calls America’s seventh broadcast network. Actually it’s the eighth if you count PBS. It’s of particular interest here in Hampton Roads, where CBN and the 700 Club were born. Where a family oriented sit-com called Big Brother Jake was filmed before a live and local audience. And where, by sheer coincidence, there is some major upheaval in the world of local television. As PortFolio reported in our cover story last week, Hampton Roads viewers will need to contend with a network swap between channel 33 and channel 43 – the stations that carry Fox and Warner Brothers. “My take on it,” says Snead is that “change is good. It focuses everyone on what is already a very exciting medium, television. For the next couple of months people will be talking about those changes with TV networks and TV channels. We want to get this family quality product on the air as soon as possible. The sooner the better for us.” Snead adds.

With the demise of adult programming on The Family Channel, and the Fox affiliation popping up to channel 43, Snead has high hopes for a quick place in our collective living rooms. “I think if you want to watch Red Skins football,” Snead points out “You’re going to HAVE to go to channel 43. It’s not going to be on 33 or on cable channel 2 anymore. People will have to go up to channel 43 to see all their favorite Fox programming. We feel that it’s a plus that they’re going to be there only a few notches away from us. So definitely this will drive people to our area of the band.” Ironic that Fox would be the network which may bring television channel surfer traffic Snead’s way. Pax TV is the opposing player on that field.

The Pax network has a line up that seems customized to fill the niche created by the new owners of what was The Family Channel. “We don’t look at it as niche programming,” Snead says. “We look at it as very much mass appeal. Because when you target families you’re targeting lots of people. Women. Women with kids. Fathers. Single dads sitting down with their kids. What we want to do is to have programming not just nationally, but here in Hampton Roads, where all families can feel comfortable having the TV on without being surprised.” according to Snead. Funny, that’s almost exactly what arch rival Barry Stag says about their new network. Stag is Fox Family Worldwide Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications. Honest that’s his real title.

“The Pax network,” Stag says “Is programming mostly re-runs during weeknight prime time. It will look like the old Family Channel.” It’s Fox Family’s view that the old way is not the best way. “Fox Family is bringing in so much new programming, we’re likely to appeal to a much broader audience than the old classic shows (on Pax).” Stag adds. But Snead is quick to point out that Pax indeed has a crop of new programming split between weekday afternoons and weekends.

Included in the lineup of original series is a new production of the 60’s generation favorite (and only) dolphin show, Flipper. There’s Neon Rider about a psychologist who tries to straighten out city kids on a dude ranch. “Not every episode has a happy ending,” Snead says “I’ve seen the first few and it looks really interesting. Real cutting edge.” Snead added. And then there’s Little Men, based on the Alcott book of the same title.
All these shows air on the weekend. Snead says there is a reason. “If you look back at U-P-N, Fox or Warner Brothers, they all started with only one or two nights of programming and grew from there. We feel the best way to capture viewers during the week is to give them new and fresh daytime shows.” Evening prime time includes Touched By An Angel, Dr. Quinn- Medicine Woman, and what had been a regular evening show on the Family Channel, Diagnosis Murder. All familiar. Nothing new. “We’ll use the weekend,” Snead says “as an opportunity to expose our audience to some new shows. Hopefully we’ll give them a hit or two. The important thing for any new brand is to be consistent. That’s why we are starting out by broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We want families to know who we are and where to find us.” Snead says.

But that’s not exactly true. From Nine until noon weekdays and until 3:00 p.m. weekends there are blocks of time reserved for local programming. At this local Paxson station that means half hour long sales pitch shows better known as info-mercials. “That could be a problem.” says Mario Hewitt, General Manager of WVEC, channel 13 in Norfolk. “Sometimes when you turn viewers off,” Hewitt warns “you don’t get them back. Viewers have choices here – and Pax is a choice, but if you cloudy up the environment to the point you turn viewers off in one segment of your programming, getting them back might be difficult.” Hewitt says it will be a tough road for Snead and other Paxson managers across the country. “Until they can get a full slate of programming that they can honestly carry from one program to another to grow their audience they’re going to be fighting for each half hour block they can get. And that’s difficult.” But Hewitt adds, he believes Paxson’s network will be a winner eventually.

Snead downplays the lack of continuous entertainment programming, saying “We’re not looking to be some small audience network, nationally or locally. We’re looking to be a network that earns strong ratings. So we’re not going to settle for showing second run syndication. Right from the launch we are demonstrating we have a lot of original programming, and as the years go on we’ll be developing new original programming all the time.”

Perhaps the best news for Snead, or for the other new television stations in town has to do with the Neilson Company – the firm that measures TV audience. In April 1999 Neilson will begin to measure Hampton Roads as an overnight ratings market. That means there will be recorders hooked up to TV sets across the area that report directly to Neilson. “Right off the top,” channel 13’s Mario Hewitt says “I think the sampling will help Fox, WB, Pax TV – and don’t leave out WGNT with UPN.” That’s because the way rating are taken now depends on viewers remembering what they watch and writing it all down. “They tend to remember they watched CBS all night but not a half hour here or there on a less familiar cable or independent channel.” Hewitt explained. “But,” Hewitt warns “that the spike might not last long. Television viewing habits settle after a while. In the same way, it will happen with the meters. It will settle into a pattern and people will get to see the consistency of a certain television station. And if you’re doing good programming that consistency will eventually show up on the meters.” Hewitt says.

So we close the book on the Family Channel and see if we’ll invite the Pax station into our homes. What happens to the Grandfatherly patron of family programming, Pat Robinson? Will the 700 Club fade the way of Big Brother Jake? Not hardly. As we said, the CBN studios will continue to beam at least that program to the world on the giant satellite dishes parked on the east side of the Founders Inn. Oh, the halls may ring a little hollow compared to the heyday of the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I can’t really speak for the Family Channel,” Jennifer Sivils says. “I’m really just a temporary employee.” Sivils is actually one of the last TV people working at the Virginia Beach offices of the Family Channel. But Pat Robinson is not temporary. To use the words of one Fox executive the 700 Club will run on that network “forever.” Amen.