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Pax TV Seeks to Fill Family Appetite : Television: Newest broadcast network fills 8 p.m. weekday slots with original shows representing a variety of genres.

September 03, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Television viewers and advocacy groups say they want more of it. Advertisers say they want more of it. But can family programming drive the success of an entire network? Pax TV is trying to find out.

The newest broadcast network, which is still pulling together its patchwork distribution of local stations and cable systems, launched its second season of programming last week, and for the first time it has all original shows in the 8 p.m. weeknight hour (9 p.m. on Sundays). With show titles that could be a guide to Pax TV's own dreams, from "Hope Island" to "It's a Miracle," the network is attempting to offer gentler fare for the hour that is traditionally prime family viewing time. Rounding out Pax's prime-time schedule are reruns of the CBS shows "Touched by an Angel" and "Diagnosis Murder," at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., respectively.

While Pax is attempting to attract an audience, another drama is unfolding behind the scenes, however. An August rulemaking by the Federal Communications Commission made it easier for the Pax stations to be acquired, at least in part, by other more-established broadcasters such as NBC. Pax promptly hired an investment banker to explore possible deals. While company insiders insist that it is unlikely that a buyer will come in and shut down the network, having a new part-owner would put even more pressure on the network to prove quickly that it can attract the attention of viewers.

Speaking to the nation's TV reporters this summer, Jeff Sagansky, president and chief executive officer of Pax TV, cited a Nielsen Media Research study that showed a majority of viewers said they wanted more family fare. "I think audiences are screaming at the networks for what they want, and the networks are turning a deaf ear," he said.

But what viewers tell pollsters and how they actually behave when they sit down with their remote controls in hand can be two very different things. Some family shows, such as CBS' "Touched by an Angel," NBC's "Providence" and the WB's "7th Heaven" have attracted sizable audiences. Pax, so far, has not, and its reruns of other networks' shows outpaced its limited number of original series last season.

Still, first-week results for the fledgling network's second season--no doubt helped by an extensive, largely radio-based promotional campaign and the reality that major networks are heavily into reruns just prior to the start of their new season--were encouraging. For the week, the network drew an average 1.1% of the nation's TV homes, according to Nielsen. That was its highest average ever, but still a pittance compared to the ratings-starved, more-established broadcasters, which are mostly in summer reruns.

In some major cities such as New York and Los Angeles, last week's new shows did even better, however, and Pax's biggest new fall series, the Sunday night "Hope Island," is waiting in the wings, with its premiere set for Sept. 12. Pax's challenge now will be to sustain its modest gains when the competition gears up its fall season. Most new broadcast network shows are launching the week of Sept. 20.

Advertisers, too, have been clamoring for more family fare, some going so far recently as to band together and give the WB a grant to develop scripts for family-friendly shows. This season, many more advertisers signed on to the Pax formula: The network took in about $85 million in advance sales from advertisers, compared to less than $25 million in its first year.

Although Pax bills itself as a family entertainment network (calling itself "A Friend of the Family"), not everything in the 8 p.m. time slot is likely to appeal to extended generations. Tuesday's "Chicken Soup for the Soul" is based on a series of inspirational books that are largely targeted at adults, for example.

Indeed, Pax has a broad definition of what constitutes family fare. Its Monday night show, "Destination Stardom," is a traditional star-search competition. "Chicken Soup for the Soul," hosted by Michael Tucker ("L.A. Law"), re-creates one of the 13,000 stories from the book series using actors. Wednesday's "Twice in a Lifetime" is a drama, about people being given second chances to change things that happened in their lives, from veteran TV producer Barney Rosenzweig, best known for "Cagney & Lacey."

Thursday's "It's a Miracle," which is returning from last season, blends actors and news interviews to dramatize stories where people think they have experienced a miracle, say, walking away from a car accident. Friday's "Little Men," also in its second year, is based on the popular children's books. On Saturday, Pax carries new episodes of the dolphin series "Flipper" at 7 p.m, while Sunday's "Hope Island" will be a humorous drama following quirky characters in an island town near Seattle. It is based on the popular British series "Ballykissangel," seen on some U.S. public broadcasting stations.

In its other big push this season, Pax also has added the early evening "Treasures in Your Home" show, attempting to capitalize on the country's collecting craze. Collectors learn the value of everything from Beanie Babies to the old biscuit tin found in the attic; those who want to cash in can immediately sell their finds on a companion Web site. Sagansky, meanwhile, says he would like to come up with a "a great mystery and family science-fiction" shows for future seasons, when he hopes to expand original offerings to two hours of prime time, not just one.

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