Paxson: Player or Pretender?
by L. Brent Bozell III
The major television networks have been losing viewers since
the malaise days of Jimmy Carter. Since 1980, in homes with the widest range
of TV options - pay cable, basic cable, and broadcast - basic cable's audience
share has climbed from four percent to 31 percent, while the Big Three's piece
of the pie has been sliced from 56 percent to 32 percent.
It's not hard to explain this slow collapse. Oh, the
networks will point to increased competition from (primarily) cable, but
that's really not the reason, especially when two new broadcast networks, UPN
and WB, have been launched in the past three years. The most important factor
is broadcast network fare, which has grown ever more tasteless. Watched a
sitcom, and, for that matter, any NBC sitcom, lately? It is
enough to send the family audience in search of a new home.
Lowell (Bud) Paxson is willing to bet $244 million (so far)
that this is the case. Why is Paxson attempting to get a broadcast network,
Pax Net, off the ground, especially since UPN and WB haven't exactly been
smashing successes? Paxson, who owns more than six dozen stations that now air
mostly infomercials, believes he'll prosper by serving the family audience
that has been largely ignored by the established webs. The watchword for Pax
Net, he asserts, will be "wholesome.
"In mid-November, Paxson announced his first program
acquisitions. For the most part, it's an impressive list. "Touched By an
Angel," "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," and "Promised
Land," all presently on CBS, are both family-friendly and ratings
winners. He's giving new life to "Christy" and "I'll Fly
Away," first-rate series from earlier this decade that never were given
the chance to find the audience they deserved.
To be sure, not every Pax Net show is suitable for children.
Presumably, "Sisters" was purchased with female viewers in mind
("Women control the clicker," says Paxson), but this long-running
(five-plus seasons), soapy drama promoted controversial causes like euthanasia
and homosexual parenting. And the sitcom "Dave's World" contained
some sexual humor - not as much as "Friends" or "Cybill,"
certainly, but enough to disqualify it as wholesome. Moreover, Paxson has
expressed interest in Fox's "Partyof Five," whose treatment of moral
matters often has been more trendy than traditional.
Paxson doesn't fit the profile of your average television
tycoon. For one thing, he's devoutly religious. In a recent interview, he
remarked that Jesus "delivered the message of the Lord through stories,
and that is what we are going to do." That's a pretty bold statement, and
"Dave's World" jokes about wet T-shirt contests aside, most of his
programs make that claim plausible. In fact, Dr. James Dobson, head of Focus
on the Family, is in Paxson's corner, so much so that Focus and Pax Net will
develop shows together. But Paxson, like his peers in the industry, is also a
savvy businessman who appears ready to do whatever he has to in order to make
his network profitable. A major syndicator has said Paxson approached him
"about buying every conceivable form of programming." His hankering
for the likes of "Sisters" and "Party of Five" illuminates
his pragmatic side.
What Paxson believes is that ultimately, he can make money
and be true to his principles. Contrary to Hollywood conventional wisdom,
all-ages programming thrives in the marketplace.
The evidence is everywhere. In the fall of 1996, Nickelodeon
started running original family offerings between 8 and 8:30 p.m. The result:
ratings jumped almost a full point. (One point equals slightly under a million
TV households.) Next fall, Nickelodeon will devote the full 8 o'clock hour to
this kind of fare. As Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell has commented,
"Kids aren't a priority at the broadcast networks."
And the Family Channel, reports the trade weekly
Broadcasting & Cable, "is developing...prime time shows to cap a
soon-to-be-revised lineup that will target kids and parents." The
magazine stated that Family Channel bigwig Haim Saban will provide details at
an Anaheim, Calif. cable exposition next week [note to editors: December
10-12]. Saban promises that "you [will be able to] leave your
six-year-old in front of the screen alone and...not worry."
There's no reason why the broadcast networks can't - and
shouldn't -- compete to regain the family audience, and it's starting to
happen. This fall on Fridays, CBS is challenging ABC's TGIF child-oriented
lineup with its own block of family sitcoms. The WB is making an effort with
programs like "7th Heaven," the fastest-growing drama in prime time.
But in general, the webs' stubborn, clueless pursuit of libidinous young
adults continues, and continues to cost them viewers. In the long run, that
will mean money in the pockets of Scannell, Saban, and Paxson. Or so they
think, and I agree.
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