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Fox Family Buys Help for Quality Originals

Pasadena, Calif.-Fox Family Channel scored a coup, and made the biggest news at last week's Television Critics Association summer press tour here, with the surprise announcement it had acquired the critically acclaimed NBC series Freaks and Geeks.

"We are going to make a home for Freaks and Geeks in a way that only cable could really make a home for a show," Fox Family executive vice president of programming and development Rob Sorcher told the assembled TV writers. "This show brings such incredible quality to Fox Family Channel. We are so proud to have writing and acting of this caliber coming to the channel."

Haim Saban, chairman of Fox Family Worldwide Inc., watched Fox Family's TCA presentation, which included the cast and producers of Freaks and Geeks, from the audience. He said he was happy with what he saw, from the acquisitions to the new original shows the network unveiled.

"Everything screamed quality," he said. "I looked and said, 'Holy cow.' The quality has been elevated."

Nearly two years after a relaunch, in an effort to boost sagging ratings, Fox Family has undergone several retoolings of its programming strategy, which is to program for kids by day and adults at night.

In primetime, Fox Family started out by airing a lot of younger-oriented reality shows. It has since evolved to doing scripted dramas and original movies targeted toward adults.

Now the mantra at Fox Family is: Less is more. The network is aiming to bring more "quality" shows-hence, acquisitions such as Freaks and Geeks and, previously, Providence-to its schedule.

Fox Family officials also said they are now in a position to be choosier about the original programming they create, concentrating on fewer-but higher-caliber-projects.

"The network is poised for a "very sharp-angle takeoff," Saban said.

It remains to be seen if Fox Family can turn the tide and whether it has finally found the right programming formula. Some of the writers were not impressed by its upcoming original series.

"Freaks and Geeks upstaged anything new they were doing," said TV Guide critic Matt Roush.

Fox Family vied with networks such as MTV: Music Television for Freaks and Geeks, a series that was the critics' darling but was canceled by NBC because of its low ratings. Fox Family will air the DreamWorks Television show starting Aug. 29. The channel bought all 18 episodes of the series, including three that were never televised, and plans to air them all.

"We just committed $400 million to acquisitions," Saban said.

Apart from Freaks and Geeks, Fox Family had a raft of announcements. Four new original series-including one from Jim Henson Television, The Fearing Mind-will launch in the fall.

Its first miniseries, the $26 million Les Miserables, with John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu, debuts in January.

And a new hour-long primetime reality series in which families compete in a global travel competition, Race Around the World, is slated to premiere early this year.

While Fox Family is trying to address its programming and ratings challenges, the network itself is still perceived as somewhat awhirl in uncertainty.

Rich Cronin, Fox Family's president since its relaunch, is gone, exiting abruptly in "May, reportedly ousted. Maureen Smith, general manager of Fox Kids Network, has taken over Cronin's duties as executive vice president of Fox Family. In addition to Cronin, Fox Family's ad-sales chief and marketing head have left.

Last week, Saban-who is "partners with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in Fox Family Worldwide-was still denying reports that he has tried to shop the whole company around to potential buyers or that he has any interest is selling his stake to Murdoch.

"I don't want to be a Jew without a job," Saban joked. "My wife doesn't want me for lunch at the house."

Saban, who has significantly slimmed down in the past few months, was also tight-lipped about Cronin's departure. "Rich Cronin was one of the nicest men I ever met in my life," he said. "That's all I'm going to say. That's all I'm saying."

But Saban did elaborate on one point: He denied that he and Cronin ever clashed on the programming direction Fox Family should take.

Sources close to Cronin had said Saban wanted Fox Family's daytime to mirror Fox Kids on broadcast, meaning action-oriented, typically animated shows, while Cronin wanted something campy and fun.

"Somebody wrote that Rich and I disagreed, and I wanted to put on [Mighty Morphin'] Power Rangers and he wanted to put on whatever he wanted to put on," Saban said. "That never even came up.There absolutely was not a disagreement on programming philosophy."

Asked if Smith will permanently replace Cronin, or if someone else will be recruited, Saban said: "There are no plans to name anybody for the time being. For reasons both tied into Maureen's life and us, we both decided that we want to call this an interim period until November. I have 100 percent faith in her. It will be a shared decision between Maureen and myself. It's a very demanding time. Maureen has two little boys, and she wanted to see how her life fit into it."

He added that he and Smith will revisit the issue in November, with Smith apparently to decide by then if she wants to take on the Fox Family duties permanently.

Like Saban, Smith denied that Fox Family plans to become a clone of Fox Kids in the daytime, adding that their programming missions and audiences were quite distinct.

"Fox Kids is action, adventure and prankster comedy," she said. "We tend to be more boy-focused. Fox Family is more female 'tweens.' Again, we're complementing each other, not cannibalizing each other."

The so-called tween audience-somewhere between Nickelodeon and MTV-is Fox Family's target, especially with music-oriented shows. "We're going to own that niche," Smith said.

In terms of primetime, "Saban said, Fox Family had two big problems when it relaunched in 1998.

He claimed that there wasn't "any appropriate off-networkprogramming around at that time to buy. Since it was totally scrapping The Family Channel's lineup, Fox Family was "compelled" to create a large amount of low-cost reality programming to fill in the primetime schedule, according to Saban.

"They are a guarantee for a decline in the ratings," he added.

In the second quarter, Fox Family was down 13 percent in primetime, to a 0.7, compared with the year-ago period, according to Nielsen Media Research. But in total day, the network was flat at a 0.3.

According to Saban, Fox Family's past problems have now been addressed and fixed.

In addition to Freaks and Geeks and Providence, Fox Family has recently acquired Early Edition and 7th Heaven to replace some of its original reality programming in prime-time. Having acquired series with a following not only fills in the blanks for the network's schedule, but adds shows to its lineup with built-in fans.

Saban's bet is that those fans will be drawn to Fox Family, which can use the shows as a promotional platform for its new original shows.

Having off-network shows also takes the pressure off Sorcher in that he has some tent poles for the schedule and he can focus on a few quality original shows.

"We are reducing the volume of originals that the channel is making," Sorcher said. "We're going for a lower number of them, but at a higher quality. There are some economic realities when you're making volume: You've got to put less into it."

At Fox Family's session, Sorcher was asked why the network didn't go ahead and continue production on Freaks and Geeks, rather than simply buying the existing episodes. The cable network's late-night press alert on the deal led TV writers to believe Fox Family was commissioning new episodes of Freaks and Geeks, since it said Fox Family was "saving" the show.

"I'll cut my leg off if we could make more shows," Sorcher said. "Whatever it takes, I would do it. To be frank, it's very hard. We would be unable, as a cable network, to produce a one-hour show of the quality of this hour, financially."

Starting Aug. 7, Fox Family will air a Monday lineup of adult-contemporary programming that includes Courage, a new series hosted by Danny Glover, as well as Providence and Early Edition.

And during its "13 Days of Halloween" stunt this fall, Fox Family will launch four series: Henson's The Fearing Mind, The Scariest Places on Earth, Real Scary and The Zack Files.

The Fearing Mind is about fictional suspense writer Bill Fearing, and its episodes intertwine the ongoing story of his family with the story he is writing during that week's episode.

"This is a perfect example of a primetime direction of where we want to go," Sorcher told the TV critics. "This is an adult show, and our job is to get adults to our network in primetime. It's a really tough thing to do because we have kids in the day, and we have 'family' in our name."

After Fox Family's presentation, Sorcher said the network will also introduce new two half-hour primetime shows in January-programs he described as "single-camera dramedies."

Said Sorcher, "They will be writer-driven and creator-driven, with a creative take on family."