Fox, Families and 'safe TV'

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - They're out there, perched on family-room couches, trigger fingers poised to punch the "mute" buttons on their TV remotes.

They have TV listings nearby, marked with highlighter-pen slashes indicating the few shows that have been deemed worthy. They can program their VCRs while blindfolded and quote chapter and verse from media reviews in various sacred and secular publications.

They are the few, the proud, the parents who try to monitor what their children watch on television. And last week many of them winced when they heard that Rupert Murdoch's Fox Kids Worldwide Inc., plans to spend $1.9 billion to buy half of the Family Channel, a cable TV network linked to the media empire of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Newspapers pounced on the differences between these media giants and their two brands of conservatism - contrasting video bimbos with biblical values, "The Simpsons" with "The Waltons," "The X Files" with the 10 Commandments, the capitalistic fervor of cable television's dark prince with the Pentecostal convictions of the Religious Right's high priest. The big question: Will Murdoch's crew create what millions will see as a dysfunctional Family Channel?

"When we talk with our viewers, they say that the Family Channel is 'safe' - that we are 'safe TV,' " said Douglas Symons, vice president for marketing at International Family Entertainment, Inc. "They tell us things like, 'We like the fact that we don't have to keep hitting the remote.' ... It's right there in our name. We are what we are. We have to be one of the most clearly positioned channels in the modern TV market and that's worth something. That has market value, today. I assume that Rupert Murdoch wouldn't spend $1.9 billion to buy that identity and then wreck it."

Another safe assumption is that Fox, after locking down a reputation for producing programs that define the edge of TV youth culture, wanted a partner on the other side of the cultural spectrum. After all, waves of worries about kids, sex and violence keep rolling over Capitol Hill. Also, there is some ratings evidence that an audience exists for family-oriented shows such as "Touched By An Angel," "7th Heaven," "Soul Man" and "Promised Land." TV Guide recently reported that studios have "at least four new shows about angels, spirits and ministers in the pipeline for next season."

Earlier this year, the Family Channel hired the Yankelovich Partners to conduct a "Barometer of the American Family" media study. It found that almost all parents (94 percent) support the availability of some kind of TV-control devices. Most (86 percent) claim to be monitoring their kids' TV viewing and 40 percent said they increased such efforts last year. On the hot issue of TV ratings, 69 percent said they preferred a content-based system. And almost everyone - 97 percent of parents, 91 percent of singles - said they wanted more "family-oriented" programs."

The problem, of course, is that "family-oriented" means different things to different people and it does not necessarily mean programs that address the role that religion plays in American life. After all, the Family Channel itself - with the exception of Robertson's "700 Club" - is better known for its comedy and detective show reruns than for new programs about faith and spirituality.

But the Yankelovich team found that Americans do have some characteristics in mind when they say "family-oriented." The top three criteria were that programs should "be compelling and interesting," "teach and encourage positive values" and "stimulate the imagination." As always, the problem will be finding shows that are "compelling," yet "safe;" that teach common "values" in a schizophrenic age; that "stimulate" plugged-in kids, without shocking cautious parents.

"I am convinced the Family Channel can keep its identity, but that Fox will have some room to maneuver," said Symons. "Sometimes, to show what positive values are, you need contrast that with the negative. You need real, believable bad guys, so that the good guys become more compelling. You can't serve up milquetoast. You may not always have a happy ending."