In the family way

CBS and ABC are getting in on The WB's act, joining forces with major advertisers in an effort to develop family friendly programming.

The Family Friendly Programming Forum, a coalition of 13 advertisers, including AT&T, IBM and Johnson & Johnson, will give both CBS and ABC close to half a million dollars this season to develop scripts that could lead to the next
Touched by an Angel

7th Heaven.

The WB, which started the trend a year ago and quickly produced this season's new series
Gilmore Girls

with the advertisers 'seed money, is going to give it another shot for fall 2001. The advertisers fronted close to $500,000 for this season and will continue that arrangement next year.

Eight scripts were produced from the advertisers' fund last year at The WB. After it was narrowed to three pilots
Gilmore Girls
, about a 16-year old girl and her unwed, working mom, was hatched. Critics have been generally impressed-it just won the Viewers for Quality Television's "show of the year" plaudits-and, for the season against tough Thursday night competition, it averages a 1.4 rating and 4 share in adults 18-49, with 3.8 million viewers.

But CBS and ABC like the risk/reward ratio. "Clearly, it's an area where we have always been strong with shows like
Dr. Quinn, Medicine

Murder, She Wrote

and even now with
Touched by an Angel,

and it's great to have the advertisers sort of as your partner as you start the development process," says CBS TV President Les Moonves. "I think it's a great move on their part to aggressively say that these shows may not quite have the sex appeal, but the advertising community will still greatly support them."

Adds a spokesman for ABC, "It's a win-win for everybody. The timing is right, and if we end up going forward with some series, it pays off for both of us.

Here's how it works: The forum allocates funds to each of the participating networks to underwrite the development of family friendly scripts. Each network then "independently" administers its own selection process and green-lights as many pilots as it desires. If a script is made into a pilot, the network reimburses the Fund and that money can be re-deployed as seed funding for other new scripts.

If a family friendly show makes it on to a network's lineup, is it guaranteed financial backing from the group of advertisers? Not necessarily. "What happens is that each of the [advertisers] makes their own decisions on whether to advertise on any shows that come out of this or not," says Johnson & Johnson's John McKeegan. "But certainly they will be given strong consideration."

Moonves hopes to develop five scripts with the advertisers' money this season and get a few pilots out of it. ABC executives are seeking similar results. NBC and FOX are not commenting on the family friendly fund initiative.

When The WB announced its arrangement with the forum last year, nay-sayers questioned how much advertisers would try to influence content. But WB programmers say they were not influenced "one bit" by outside forces.