Cable's Family Channel has built a reputation for wholesome, squeaky-clean entertainment. Formerly the Christian Broadcasting Network, its schedule is peppered with new versions of such chestnuts as "Zorro," "Rin Tin Tin" and "Prince Valiant," plus religious fare such as Pat Robertson's "700 Club," as well as repeats of the nostalgic "The Waltons," "Wagon Train," "Bonanza" and "The Big Valley."
But the Family Channel is attempting something different with its new quarterly magazine series "Family Edition," hosted by newswoman Mary Alice Williams of NBC's "Sunday Today."
Over the next year, "Family Edition," produced by Hearst Entertainment, will devote 20 programs covering four subjects--health and fitness, the environment, education and personal finance and the economy. Each subject was will be explored over five nights.
Beginning Monday, "Family Edition" examines the health and fitness issues: exercise, fitness, nutrition, children's health and major diseases, with an emphasis on cancer. Interspersed among experts in the field will be stars Mary Tyler Moore, discussing her life with diabetes; Jack Klugman talking about his battle with throat cancer; and conversations with Cheryl Tiegs (on nutrition), Jason Priestley (on exercise and sports) and Regis Philbin (on fitness).
Host Williams said the underlying philosophy of "Family Edition" is that "Americans can't wait for solutions to trickle down from the top any more."
"They have got to start solving the global problems that no one person can handle alone, in their kitchen, in their back yards and their schoolyards. What we try to do is give them the kind of information that can allow them to do that. This program tries to focus on Americans who are solving problems."
James Ackerman, executive in charge of production of "Family Edition," said the Family Channel has been eager to do an information-type series.
"When the Family Channel became the Family Channel, the focus was to be the comprehensive, entertainment network for American families," he said. "But somewhere along the way, someone said if we are going to be the Family Channel, we are going to have to be more than wholesome TV shows. We are going to have to provide information to families that supports their lifestyle and give them tools within their lifestyle to use as family and a family unit."
"Family Edition," said Terry Botwick, the Family Channel's vice president of original programming, also is a way to attract viewers who may not have tuned into the cable network.
"We are in a cluttered market where in the average cable home there are 37 channels," Botwick said. "With so many to choose from, how do we get their attention? It is like nobody hasn't talked about those subjects we are talking about, but we are talking about them more exhaustively than is typically done in television because of the format."
Also unique about "Family Edition," Ackerman said, is that it is the first cross-media show. When Hearst and the Family Channel discussed doing "Family Edition," Hearst suggested they should tie the series into its magazines and the Family Channel agreed. Consequently, four Hearst magazines--Redbook, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful and Country Living--include in their June issues a four-page supplement on the health and fitness issues discussed on "Family Edition."
"The advertisers will buy both the magazine and the television shows together," Botwick said. "The magazines alone will reach something like 60% of the women (the primary Family Channel audience) ages 18-54. Then couple that with the Family Channel, which reaches 90% of all cable groups; it is a staggering reach."
Each supplement will be timed with the premiere of a new "Family Edition." In turn, "Family Edition" is using researchers from Good Housekeeping, while Country Living and House Beautiful are producing certain segments of the show.
The right host, Botwick said, was very important for the series. "We were looking for somebody who would have great appeal to women and who also would have a news background so that the information we are providing would be very credible." An added plus with Williams, Botwick said, was her previous experience as a news anchor on CNN, because she is already known to cable viewers.
Williams said "Family Edition" started out a "nice little show for consumers and ended up with an intellectual and philosophical underpinning it didn't have to begin with because it was compelling information."
The majority of the 20 shows were not scripted. "Some of it is, but most of it is not," Williams said. "So I had to do my own research. That takes nothing away from an enormous team of very smart producers and researchers who pulled this stuff together."
The Family Channel already has other information-type shows in the planning state. "We want to continue the trend," Ackerman said. "It is all part of the family experience."
"Family Edition" airs Monday through Friday this week at 9 p.m.