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Family Friendly Television Group Growing

NEW YORK (AP) _ Frustrated by a paucity of family-oriented TV programs where she felt comfortable placing her company's commercials, Pfizer's Kaki Hinton met for lunch five years ago with executives at nine other corporations who had similar complaints.

There was little indication that it would be anything more than a gripe session.

Instead, it was the birth of a group, the Family Friendly Programming Forum, that can claim a real impact on the kind of shows that the major broadcast networks are airing.

The forum provided seed money to help develop seven programs on the networks' fall schedule (four holdovers and three new series).

``I think we've turned around attitudes,'' said Bill McCarron, co-chairman of the forum with Hinton. ``You listen to any upfront (fall schedule presentation) and every network talks about family-oriented programming now. Five years ago they were afraid to.''

At that time, broadcast networks were nervous about seeming old-fashioned compared to cable outlets that had fewer content restrictions, Hinton said. Edgy material was in.

The advertisers who founded the forum _ including Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, IBM, Sears and Coca-Cola _ had no idea how to promote alternatives until hearing an idea from Jamie Kellner, then chief executive of the WB network.

Kellner suggested the executives read prospective scripts and help finance ones they believed families could watch together.

The WB submitted nine scripts that first year, the only network to participate.

This year, the forum reviewed 51 scripts sent in by ABC, CBS, NBC and the WB, Hinton said. Thirty-seven scripts received money, generally $45,000 to $75,000. If one of those scripts becomes a show that makes it to air, as happened three times this year, the advertisers are reimbursed. A pilot episode for a scripted series often costs about $1 million to produce.

Kellner understood the initial reluctance.

``The tendency to not want to let advertisers into your business was always there in the network culture,'' he said. ``More and more, it was seen as a benefit to having the advertisers more involved.''

The WB learned the value of family-friendly programs through the success of ``Seventh Heaven,'' which consistently does well as other, more publicized shows have come and gone.

Key to the group's acceptance was ``Gilmore Girls,'' the first show it funded to make it on the air. Here was a smartly written show about the complex mother-daughter relationship that fit no one's mold about a family-friendly show. This was no ``Leave it to Beaver.''

That opened the door to deeper, more challenging scripts _ instead of more tired sitcoms about dumb dads and above-it-all kids, McCarron said.

The forum itself has grown to where more than 40 companies are involved, including McDonald's, Hershey Foods, Nestle, Gillette, Verizon and Tyson Foods.

``It raised the issue in the industry,'' Kellner said. ``There have been high-level meetings where it is being discussed. It wasn't being discussed before.''

Besides ``Gilmore Girls,'' returning fall shows the forum paid for are ABC's ``8 Simple Rules,'' NBC's ``American Dreams'' and the WB's ``Steve Harvey's Big Time'' _ a comedy, drama and variety hour.

This fall's new shows are ``Father of the Pride,'' NBC's animated half-hour about lions who perform with Siegfried and Roy; ``Savages,'' ABC's Mel Gibson-produced comedy about a single dad raising six boys; and ``Clubhouse,'' a CBS drama about a batboy for a major league baseball team.

``I think it's a terrific thing,'' said Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which frequently complains about sex and violence on television. ``I think it was gutsy for them, especially the early birds on this.''

Fox, which has television's most popular, family-friendly series in ``American Idol,'' hasn't taken money from the forum. Neither has UPN.

Forum members suspect there's still a sense that their group is considered unhip, especially since these networks chase young viewers.

Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said this wasn't so. The forum has said that it is financing shows that would not otherwise get made, he said, and if there was a show Fox wanted to make, it would do it.

Television has now reached the point where there is at least one family-friendly alternative on the broadcast dial for nearly every prime-time hour, Hinton said.

The forum's quiet investment is an effective alternative to, say, groups like Bozell's that constantly raise red flags, forum leaders say.

``I don't think Washington legislating or other groups complaining has ever provided as much of an impact as what we have done,'' McCarron said. ``Everybody takes their own approach. We'll stick with ours.''

Bozell, who noted that many of these same companies also advertise in some of TV's more objectionable shows, said the industry needs groups to speak out about what they consider offensive. The groups have to balance that, as the PTC does, by honoring shows that do it right, he said.

The forum tried to foster a more competitive atmosphere this year among networks submitting scripts, inviting producers and writers in to discuss what worked as a family-friendly show.

What it needs now is a show that ranks consistently among Nielsen Media Research's top 20, Hinton said.

``We don't want to just get a family-oriented show on the air,'' McCarron agreed. ``We want to have a hit.''
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