Paxson: Player or Pretender?

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 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.