Pax juices up its notion of 'family fare'

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Lowell "Bud" Paxson was in fine fettle following the prime-time upfront presentation of his Pax network, run for the first time by NBC sales and programming executives. Mr. Paxson watched from the sidelines.

The Peacock suits crowed to a very modest gathering of advertising buyers about how they have developed a whole slate of programs that are in keeping with Pax's wholesome "family focused" mission.

Mr. Paxson, when asked if the new schedule will lift the network out of its perennial audience slump-Pax shows seldom breaks even a one rating among households each week-said: "We're gonna kick ass."

The NBC team offered a redefinition of what the American family is-no longer traditional and "nuclear," but more likely to be headed by a single mom or dad. In the past, these were called troubled or broken homes, which pretty much describes the Pax and NBC's past relationship.

General Electric Co.-owned NBC bought about a third of Pax in 1999, and last November, effectively sued for divorce by trying to force parent Paxson Communications to buy it all back. Earlier, in 2001, after NBC bought Telemundo Communications, Paxson filed an arbitration claim against NBC for alleged breach of agreement. The claim was dismissed. And for years now, Paxson has complained that NBC never helped it improve its programming slate.

head of household

The family feud now appears to be over, with NBC essentially designated head of household. This year, Pax's seventh season, the broadcaster has 11 shows developed by a Peacock team led by Sharaton Kalouria, senior VP-NBC Entertainment.

The schedule includes two game shows "On the Cover" and "Balderdash," both Trivial Pursuit-like contests; two scripted dramas, "Left Behind" and "Young Blades"; and three variety shows, "America's Most Talented Kids!" "The Magician" and "World Cup Comedy," produced by Kelsey Grammer.

But more ambitiously, Pax is bulking up for the first time on reality shows. "Model Citizens," a show about fashion models who go to "main street America" to fix roofs, dig ditches and perform other good deeds and "Second Verdict," a courtroom challenge show. The most promising is "Cold Turkey," produced by "Average Joe" creator Stuart Krasnow. "Turkey" puts a group of hard-core smokers into a group house where they try to quit the habit for cash, over the course of 10 episodes.

"We are on the right track to take Pax to the next level," said Keith Turner, president, NBC Universal sales and marketing, who opened the upfront show. "Producing new shows that prove family friendly programming doesn't have to be boring."

Indeed, the clips for the new lineup were downright racy for a family focused network. "Model Citizens" and several beauty-pageant specials showed lots of cheesecake, and a clip for "Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye," a drama about a deaf FBI agent, exploded with gunplay and fist fighting. Perhaps most unexpected was the morbid creepiness of "Left Behind," a series based on the popular series of Christian novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The story, based on the biblical prophecies surrounding the apocalypse, follows those left behind after the "rapture," a cataclysmic event that zaps millions of people around the world out of existence. The few "left behind" search for friends and family.

"I was surprised to see the guns," Mr. Kalouria said of the action in the clip for "Sue Thomas," which is a returning series produced by Paxson, not NBC. "But you know, this programming is not about the complete absence of violence, it's about the absence of gratuitous violence. It is about the absence of graphic sex, but not the absence of sexual tension. We're going after hip families now. These are not Norman Rockwell's families."

the new family

Alan Wurtzel, president-research and development at NBC, presented the new profile of contemporary families during the upfront event. "In 1960, 31% of American households were nuclear families," he said. The U.S. census defines nuclear families as husband works and wife stays at home with children. "In 2002, only 7% were nuclear." The rest, according to Mr. Wurtzel, are an assortment of relationships from "divorced mom with kids" to "living together with kids."

The problem is that today's families just aren't taking to Pax. During the week of April 26 through May 2, only one show broke above a one rating-that was "Sue Thomas," which hit a 1.0 rating and 2 share in households in its 9 p.m. slot on Sunday night.

And despite NBC's efforts to reinvigorate Pax, many advertisers don't see much hope for it. In fact, not one top media buying executive attended the Pax upfront. Bill McOwen, exec VP-director, national broadcast at Havas' MPG USA said that for advertisers, especially package-goods marketers and domestic automakers that need to get the attention of consumers in the middle of the country, where Pax has deep access, the network can be a safe buy.

"It's safe, it's efficient, theoretically it reaches the 17% of homes that cable has a hard time reaching ... and that's not a bad thing. Pax has its audience, there's no question, but there's a very difficult synergy that exists right now with Pax and NBC. There is really not much that one can offer the other, quite frankly."

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