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The Family Way : CHANNEL TRIES TO SHED RELIGIOUS IMAGE YET STILL ADHERE TO WHOLESOME VALUES

ZAP! What's on Cable? Second in a series spotlighting cable networks, leading up to cable's Ace Awards on Jan. 13.

December 23, 1990|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Family Channel has gone through more incarnations than Shirley MacLaine.

OK, maybe not that many, but the basic cable channel bares little resemblance to the 24-hour-day CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) Satellite Service that premiered years ago to bring evangelist Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" to cable subscribers.

Today the channel, while still home to "The 700 Club," is getting more viewers and more revenue with a secular mix of family programming that includes new shows and movies mixed with reruns of network TV series.

Despite its financial success, the channel is still trying to buck its image as a Christian network.

The network was started by Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network in 1977 to bring "The 700 Club" and other church shows to cable. Robertson's national exposure on CBN helped him launch an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

The first reincarnation came in 1981, when it became CBN Cable Network, an advertiser-supported entertainment network still owned by CBN.

Although the network initially depended on reruns of such chestnuts as "My Little Margie" and "Bachelor Father," it began producing its own series the same year, including a weekday morning program called "USa.m.," the daily soap opera "Another Life," and the animated children's series "Superbook" and "The Flying House."

In 1986, CBN Cable Network added reruns of "Hardcastle & McCormick" straight off ABC and co-produced with a Canadian production company the new dramatic series "The Campbells." "Butterfly Island" joined the lineup the following year. (None of these series are now on the schedule.)

Two years ago the network changed its name again, this time to the CBN Family Channel. In 1989 it dropped the CBN name entirely and was christened the Family Channel.

In the process, the subscriber base has grown from 10.9 million households in 1981 to more than 51 million households this year, making it the eighth-largest basic cable network.

Run today by Tim Robertson, the evangelist's 35-year-old son, the Family Channel describes itself as providing "new, exclusive shows and golden oldies that can be enjoyed by the entire family-programing that is entertaining without being offensive."

That means no sex, violence, car chases or bad language.

There are still repeats of such classic Westerns as "Wagon Train" and "The Virginian" and the cult series "Beauty and the Beast," but most of the schedule consists of original movies, children's programming and eight original "wholesome" series including the Western "Bordertown"; a new version of "Zorro"; "The Adventures of the Black Stallion," featuring Mickey Rooney; "Big Brother Jake," a sitcom starring trainer to the stars Jake Steinfeld, and the offbeat comedy "Maniac Mansion," featuring SCTV veterans and produced by George Lucas' Lucasfilms.

In January, CBN sold the Family Channel to International Family Entertainment, a new partnership headed by the Robertsons and the Denver cable company Tele-Communications Inc. "CBN," said Robertson, "holds an equity interest, but it no longer has the controlling vote of the company."

But a fair amount of religious programming remains-22% of the schedule in fact, including three hours a day of "The 700 Club" (one of the stipulations of the sale was that the Family Channel would still air "The 700 Club"), and several more hours of non-CBN produced religious programming Saturday and Sunday evenings and Sunday mornings. The religious shows are all paid programming. Robertson agreed that some subscribers still view the Family Channel as primarily a religious network.

"It is one of those things that is going to take time to get past," he said. "We have a major campaign, which we are launching in 1991, a very serious campaign to let people know exactly what the Family Channel is and what we program and what they can see when they watch us."

Some critics maintain the Family Channel's series and original movies have religious overtones. Channels magazine recently stated: "A religious vision for the channel is still very much in evidence, and that has kept Family struggling to find a balance between the wholesome and the holy."

Such criticism rankles Robertson: "What we do are programs which we hope look at the world from a perspective that tries to base itself in the Judeo-Christian moral ethic, and that basic ethic is the foundation upon which our Constitution was written and is ultimately the foundation for English common law," he said. "When you get down to it, the Ten Commandments are the basis for just about all the laws which have been written in Western civilization. So we think those are important principals. If someone says to me that putting a program on that demonstrates how children honor their parents is somehow Christian, I will say, "OK, maybe the Ten Commandments tell children to honor their mother and father, but does that mean it's a religious show?' "

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