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Fox Family, take two

While Capitol Hill frets over media violence, FOX Family Channel, a network that would like to think it exemplifies much of what is decent about programming, struggles for an audience. Now, it's undergoing an overhaul to reverse a two-year ratings slide.

The on-air look is new, with a slick stylized logo on a yellow field (àla ABC's TGIF Fridays) replacing the purple FOX Family spiral. And a new executive regime is taking the reins.

"We feel we're going to redefine 'family,'" said Maureen Smith, named president of the network last week. "We're going from a channel that tried to reach all members of the family through kids first, to reaching all members of the family, but maybe at different times of day.with an emphasis on 'tweens'[9-to-14] during the day and contemporary adult entertainment at night that's kid friendly."

Smith originally took interim control over the channel last May, when her predecessor, Rich Cronin, was abruptly given his walking papers. Cronin was brought in to reposition the network from religious programming to general family entertainment.

Armed with a two-year, $500 million programming budget, Cronin also set out to "redefine what is family entertainment," he told an audience of advertisers in early 1999. He initially loaded up the schedule with whatever he could lay his hands on, true FOX signature stuff like Famous Families, World Gone Wild,Incredible Animals and The Secret KGB UFO Files. Original movies were added, and eventually so were some fairly strong off-network acquisitions, such as Early Edition and Providence. Under Cronin, kid viewing picked up, total day started to recover and certain time slots improved. Still, prime time remains about half of what it was before the repositioning.

Smith, a 14-year FOX veteran, takes up the cause of Family in a tumultuous time. The network's debt load is about 10 times its cash flow, according to a FOX analyst. Advertisers are skeptical about buying the channel because of the ratings, media buyers say. And EchoStar is suing to drop the channel just as FOX Family affiliate sales executives are seeking increased monthly fees from cable operators.

"It clearly has not been able to find its programming niche," said Richard Read, an analyst with Credit Lyonnais Securities. "If they can get carriage clearance to take the concept a new way, perhaps they have to go a little edgier, away from this type of family programming."

Smith wants FOX Family to distinguish itself by reaching kids through adults and not vice versa, like Nickelodeon and Disney. And because few of the early original series remain, Smith predicted the FOX Family of the future will be much more consistent in programming, scheduling and doing pilots.

"Going into pilots first will prevent spending on a series that doesn't work," Smith said.

Tom Halleen will be supporting Smith in the overhaul as senior vice president of prime time programming development, displacing former Cartoon executive Rob Sorcher from the top programming spot. Sorcher landed at USA Network as executive vice president and general manager, a newly created position mirroring Bonnie Hammer's at sister net Sci Fi.

Halleen, previously in charge of original movies, acquisitions and scheduling, will now oversee scripted series and reality programming as well. His programming credits include snagging Early Edition, Providence, 7th Heaven and Freaks and Geeks. Smith's team will include former NBC program developer Debbie Teicher, who will be in charge of original-movie development, and Joel Andryce, who will oversee daytime programming under a newly separated unit.

Continuing a strategy of holiday-event programming developed under Cronin, FOX Family's next big unveiling will correspond with Halloween. Under the umbrella of "The 13 Days of Halloween," FOX Family will launch The Fearing Mind, a series created by the Henson group.