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A family affair

Last year, The WB was so popular on Madison Avenue that advertisers actually gave the young network seed money to help develop more family-friendly series like 7th Heaven.

Twelve national advertisers, including such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, came up with $1 million for WB executives to use in developing scripts for potential series that would fit under a family-friendly programming banner. (Also see Cover Story.)

The ground-breaking move was declared "dangerous" by some in the Hollywood creative community who saw the relationship as too cozy, but WB executives went forward, hoping to come up with another 7th Heaven, the network's highest-rated show.

Now, just weeks away from the network upfronts, where new shows are showcased for advertisers, WB executives have ordered three pilots from a batch of eight family-friendly scripts and one or even all three may actually land on the network's schedule in the fall.

"I've seen some dailies, and we have cast all three series. This is the time of year when you have high hopes for everything," says WB Entertainment President Susanne Daniels. "I don't think any of them are out of the running, and we are actually very high on all three of them. We'll find out next month if any make the cut."

The three series developed out of the $1 million seed money are all hour-drama pilots. One is Finally Home, which stars Melissa Gilbert (veteran of the family-friendly Little House series). Finally Home is being produced by Aaron Spelling and 7th Heaven producer Catherine LePard. The series centers on Gilbert, who is trying to deal with the tragic death of her two twin daughters by reaching out to children who have lost their parents or siblings.

The other two series are Gilmore Girls and Harold Ramis' DIG, the latter of which goes behind the scenes of Los Angeles' school system. DIG (Department of Inspector General) stars Virginia Madsen and is produced by Ramis (Ghostbusters) and Columbia TriStar and Brady Grey Television.

Gilmore Girls is creating the buzz, according to many WB executives. It's a mother-daughter drama set in a small Connecticut town, is produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Roseanne) and is a product of co-owned studio, Warner Bros.

"There are no strings attached to any of these shows," Daniels maintains. "The money was used strictly for script development, and that was it. There are no guarantees from the advertisers that they will buy time on the shows if they make the schedule, and I have not received one call giving me notes on a series or telling me to pick up one show over another."

Daniels says she did send all 12 advertisers the scripts from the original eight projects and will send the three pilots to them as soon as they are finished. But, she adds, "they will not have a say on what we put on the air next fall. We will select the best comedies and dramas that we believe should be on the network, period." The advertiser dollars are used only on script development, WB executives say.

The idea for the family-friendly initiative at The WB came out of a meeting of network executives and advertisers in 1999. WB CEO Jamie Kellner told a roomful of advertisers craving more shows like 7th Heaven to put "their money where their mouths were." The advertisers did just that. Besides Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, participating companies include AT & T, Pfizer, Sears, Warner-Lambert, IBM, General Motors and Wendy's International.

"We hope to create more program options that bring parents and children together," says Andrea Alstrup, vice president of advertising at Johnson & Johnson and the creator of The Family Friendly Programming Forum. "Our first step is to make sure there are some wonderful pilot scripts written that appeal to families. We're pleased that The WB has undertaken this initiative, and we are hopeful we will see these shows on The WB schedule in the years ahead."

Alstrup's Family Friendly organization now consists of more than 40 national companies, including her own employer, Johnson & Johnson. Twelve national corporations stepped up to plant the $1 million at The WB, and Alstrup says many more companies are ready to get involved in the script-development process in the future. Alstrup says she is in talks with all of the other major broadcast networks for similar initiatives but none has agreed to anything like The WB's commitment-yet.

And what if nothing comes out of the script-development initiative with The WB next season?

"I don't think that's going to be the case," Alstrup says. "I'm very confident that these are very good series that The WB will likely find a way to get on the network next season. If they don't, it won't change our plans at all."

As for Daniels, she says, "It depends on how successful it is. It depends on if any of these are good enough to go to series. If nothing goes to series, we will have to see if the advertisers want to invest again."