Fox, which brought "Married . . . With Children," sports, news and "When Animals Attack" into your living room, is now in a family way.
Today marks the debut of the Fox Family Channel, a transformation of the 21-year-old cable outlet that will target kids and families in battle with older, more established youth-oriented channels such as Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network.
The venture--a partnership of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the parent of Fox, and Saban Entertainment--is committing $500 million to a slate that will feature more than 50% original programming, including movies, specials and children's fare. Gone are all but one of the programs--"The 700 Club"--that formerly appeared on what was known simply as the Family Channel, including reruns of "Diagnosis Murder," "Hawaii Five-O" and "Rescue 911."
"Our most optimistic dream is to have this channel be the true home base for American families, particularly if they are looking for family entertainment," said Rich Cronin, president and CEO of the Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids. "This channel will have the Fox personality, and be fun, innovative, creative, fun and hip."
Included in the lineup are daily shows such as "I Can't Believe You Said That!," a "Family Feud"-type game show in which families unveil secrets; "Show Me the Funny," patterned after "America's Funniest Home Videos"; "Ooohhh, Noooo!!! Mr. Bill Presents," starring the knockabout Play-doh figure first introduced on "Saturday Night Live"; and "Captain Kangaroo's Treasure House."
Cronin, a former executive at MTV Networks, hopes the mix will differentiate the channel from its rivals.
"Nick is the kids network, and that's not really designed for adults," he said. "Nick at Nite is really for fans of classic TV. The Disney Channel has gone after families, but they have a whole different sensibility based upon their heritage. And the Cartoon Network is all cartoons, which has nothing to do with families."
Fox also is hoping to use the cable channel as a promotional tool for its children's programming on its broadcast network. Once the No. 1 network for children on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons, Fox has seen viewers siphoned off in recent years by the WB network, Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and, on Saturdays, Disney-owned ABC. Now the two Fox entities will be able to cross-promote each other.
But even before the launch button is pushed at noon today for "The Three Friends and Jerry Show," the Fox Family Channel has raised some eyebrows among TV critics and analysts regarding its programming mix.
One reason is the holdover from the old Family Channel: "The 700 Club," a Christian-based informational program hosted by TV evangelist and onetime Republican presidential aspirant Pat Robertson. Robertson, who founded the cable outlet in 1977 (originally known as the Christian Broadcasting Network), was head of the parent company, International Family Entertainment, that was sold to Fox Kids Worldwide last year for $1.9 billion. Terms of the deal called for Robertson to remain as co-chairman of the Fox Family Channel and for "The 700 Club" to continue airing.
The series initially will run weekdays at 11 p.m. but as of Sept. 9 also will be seen weekdays at 9:30 a.m., interrupting the flow of morning children's programs.
Fox executives also came under fire at a recent meeting with TV critics when they said the channel would have "the Fox attitude." The writers questioned whether the edgy, envelope-pushing Fox "attitude" was compatible with programs geared toward families and young people, and whether the programming--which includes the airing of films such as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Nell" and a concert special starring the Spice Girls--would alienate some of the fans of the old Family Channel.
Cronin said of the criticism: "I'm disappointed in the initial response. You always want to get positive press. I feel it was just too easy for the writers to use the hook of 'The 700 Club' and the Fox 'attitude.' I'm disheartened that the focus was on that instead of the programming. All the great work we've done on our shows was ignored. But that is something we have to communicate more clearly."
Eytan Keller, the channel's senior vice president of reality programming and specials, said the video clip and reality shows will be "entirely appropriate for families. There is a thread of comedy which runs through our shows. The content will not be 'When Animals Attack.' We would be out of our minds to program material that is not appropriate if we are investing so heavily into attracting families."
Cronin said that "personality" instead of "attitude" would best describe the channel. "A lot of this will become more clear as journalists and viewers check out the network," he said. "For this kind of massive change, it will take several months for all of this to sink in."