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After a Long Search, a TV Family Finds a Home : The Big Players Pass So ‘Kirk’ Lands at Fledgling WB Network

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The creators of “Family Matters” and “Step by Step” thought they had a sure-fire idea for another family sitcom: Make “Growing Pains” star Kirk Cameron a 22-year-old bachelor forced to raise three younger siblings.

William Bickley and Michael Warren took the idea to ABC. It never got on the air. NBC passed. Fox said the show wasn’t edgy enough. For the first time in years, Bickley and Warren found that doors had shut on one of their pilots.

“We just assumed this [series] was dead,” Warren said. “In fact, it was clear enough that we had really written it off.”

But Wednesday night, more than two years after the show was first conceived, “Kirk” will finally debut--thanks to the fledgling WB Network. The series, which will settle into its regular 8 p.m. Sunday time slot on Sept. 10, is a cornerstone of the network’s new strategy: target the family audience.

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It’s a counter-programming move as other networks move to attract young, urban viewers--those coveted by advertisers--with more provocative programming. So while characters muse about sex and dating on other networks, Cameron will be pulling his 7-year-old brother from a toilet on WB.

“It is almost strange, but you could call it alternative family television,” Cameron said.

Just two years ago, Bickley and Warren’s family-oriented sitcoms were far from passe. They were on a roll, capitalizing on ABC’s need for family sitcoms at 8 p.m. and on Friday nights, where the network has an entire block of light comedies dubbed “TGIF.” When word got out that family-sitcom veteran Cameron was looking for a new show, Bickley and Warren set up a meeting.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do a show about the world’s youngest father?’ ” Warren said. “The only way we could think of it, other than aliens, was that it was siblings he had to raise.”

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On the show, Cameron plays Kirk Hartman, who is just starting a career and living on his own. But his aunt--who had raised Kirk and his three siblings after his parents died--hands the responsibility for the younger kids over to him.

The concept “has been done before, but because we know Kirk, it seemed like he would be a good guy thrown into that situation,” Warren said. “The more you are with him the more he comes across as the character Jimmy Stewart played in so many movies, the earnest well-meaning guy who was in over his head.”

It also fit Bickley and Warren’s style: Characters who, despite their flaws, want to do the right thing.

ABC liked the pilot--then called “Life Happens"--but couldn’t find a spot for it in its 1994 fall lineup. It didn’t help that the network already had another sitcom, “On Our Own,” with a similar premise: A 20-year-old raises six children whose parents died in a car crash. And Fox had “Party of Five,” a drama about two young men trying to raise their younger siblings.

Instead, ABC executives said they were interested in the Cameron show as a midseason replacement, only to let the option lapse at the end of last year.

“It was like a love-fest the entire time, all the way up to the scheduling,” said Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television, which developed the show with Bickley-Warren. “The testing proved that the show had a wide appeal. The kids loved [Cameron], and so did women 18 to 49. But ABC couldn’t figure out where to put it.”

Warner Bros. executives then shopped the show around, but never solidified a deal. NBC passed on a modified version of the show, in which Cameron has a buddy to help raise the kids. Fox, with a lineup of edgier comedies, also passed.

“The show did come together,” Jonas said. “But the demographics weren’t working for it.”

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What was happening was other networks found success at slotting adult-oriented shows such as “Melrose Place” and “Mad About You” at 8 p.m., a time period known for decades as “the family hour.” And family shows like “Full House” and “Thunder Alley” were fading during the 8 p.m. hour. Bickley and Warren, meanwhile, were not willing to change the style of their series.

A racier sitcom “is not the nature of what the show was,” Bickley said. “It is not something that we would seriously consider. It would have been a totally different show at its heart.”

In stepped WB, which saw “Kirk” as a potent new entry for targeting family viewers in the early evening hours. Preceding “Kirk” on Sundays will be the animated “Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky & the Brain” and reruns of “Sister, Sister,” which the network picked up from ABC. (New episodes will air Wednesdays on WB.)

It is a shift in the network’s original strategy of sitcom fare that ranged from the Cosby-esque sitcom “The Parent ‘Hood” to the risque, often bawdy “Muscle.” By the end of the season, WB had the distinction of ranking sixth out of six networks.

Family shows “were a natural place for us to go,” said Garth Ancier, WB’s chief programmer. “It was based on a recognition as we went through the development season last year that the networks seemed to be moving away from families at 8 o’clock. We felt here was an opportunity to establish ourselves with the kids, with the teens, with the family and parent audience.”

To be sure, ABC executives insist that their shows still could be called family programming, pointing to the continued success of the “TGIF” format on Fridays and the renewal of family movies on Saturdays. “There’s just not a prima facie case to be made that ABC has abandoned the family programming genre,” said Ted Harbert, ABC entertainment president.

But, as Ancier points out, there will be fewer shows aimed at kids at 8 p.m. on ABC. In the coming season, viewers will see ABC’s “Roseanne” lead off Tuesdays instead of “Full House,” and “Ellen” on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. instead of “Thunder Alley.”

In its time slot, “Kirk” will compete against the adult sitcoms “Cybill” on CBS and “Mad About You” on NBC, as well as “Lois & Clark” on ABC and “The Simpsons” on Fox. WB is counting on Cameron’s popularity among teens and parents to lure viewers.

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“They probably think of all their shows, his has the best opportunity,” said Betsy Frank, executive vice president at Zenith Media in New York. “ ‘Growing Pains’ is still in reruns. He has had success. Viewers have heard of him.”

The show’s title was changed to “Kirk” to make it easier to promote and the premise was fine-tuned. But by and large, Bickley and Warren said, the show is about the same as when they started. They weren’t willing to change.

“We just try to do what we are interested in,” Bickley said. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years, and we’ve seen every wave there is. We’ve seen the death of the sitcom. We’ve seen network presidents say shows like the ‘A-Team’ will be the only successful shows on the air. You see the cycle happen enough times, and you realize it will come around again. It’s a losing enterprise to try to second guess what the network wants.”

* “Kirk” premieres at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday on the WB Network, which includes KTLA-TV Channel 5.


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