Loesch's Odyssey: Family Viewing

She is, arguably, the most successful television executive of the last decade, having led a network to a four-year reign in first place.

Yet it's telling, actually, that few people even within the entertainment industry would immediately come up with the name of Margaret Loesch, who served as president of the Fox Kids Network for seven years. In that time, she took the service from a start-up operation to a dominant force in children's TV, which ruled Saturday morning from 1993-97.

No one in recent times has exhibited a better sense of what kids want to watch. Loesch has been associated with a wide spectrum of series, from the critically lauded "Muppet Babies" and "Bobby's World" to the phenomenally popular "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and the animated superhero shows "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "Batman" and "The Tick," which drew a substantial audience of adults and teenagers as well as children.

Inexplicably pushed out at Fox in November 1997, Loesch landed a few months later at the Jim Henson Television Group and is now overseeing a brave new venture: transforming the Odyssey Channel, a low-profile cable service featuring religious and "values" programming, into a broad-appeal family network--one that will benefit from the program libraries and creative pedigree of its new partners, Henson's company and Hallmark Entertainment.

Loesch began her TV career as a clerk, navigating her way up the food chain without the obligatory relative in high places. Perhaps that's one reason why her views resonate with such common-sense appeal and she even now sees herself as something of an outsider in the TV business, where some occupants of executive suites appear more driven by a thirst for power than a love of programs.

Yet those in more prominent jobs or at better-known networks would be well-advised to take heed of what Loesch has to say as they pore over data from program testing and focus groups, wondering where their viewers have gone.

With the relaunch of Odyssey this spring, Loesch wants to helpredefine the notion of "family television," which for many adults signifies sappy and saccharine fare.

"I have been trying to make television like it was when I was a little girl," she noted. "Some of the happiest moments I had were when I watched television with my dad, and we watched 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents,' 'The Twilight Zone,' 'Sea Hunt.' All those shows were clearly targeted to the family and adults, but he never had to ask me to leave the room, nor did I want to."

As a result, she rejects the idea that people must inevitably scatter like roaches when the TV goes on, with kids and adults splitting to watch different channels in separate rooms. A parent and child can and will tune in together, Loesch contends, if a show strikes the balance of offering material compelling to both. "Which is the cart and which is the horse? Do I allow my son to go off and watch Nickelodeon because there's nothing that I want to watch that he wants to watch too? Yes.

"What I'm suggesting isn't particularly popular right now, but I go back to my own experience," she said. "In the evenings, if I want to relax and watch TV, nine times out of 10 I have to ask my son to leave the room or I leave the room, because it's either a sitcom that's banal and really only is targeted to an 8- or 9-year-old, or it's programming that's totally inappropriate for my 10-year-old."

Although children's programming won't be a significant part of the equation at Odyssey, Loesch says her experience in that arena has been invaluable, noting that trying to satisfy kids' tastes represents a task more formidable than many realize.

"Nothing is harder than writing a story that has appeal to a broad range of kids," she said. "It is more challenging to write a script that appeals to a 5-year-old and an 11-year-old than it is to write a script that appeals to a 25-year-old and a 35-year-old."

As for turning Odyssey into a family network, Loesch maintains that developing programs capable of appealing to adults doesn't differ conceptually from what works in capturing the fancy of children.

"For kids, I never thought less of them because they were kids, and I remembered what I liked as a kid," she said. "I believe that if anyone stays true to that, by respecting your audience and remembering what you like, you can deliver the goods.

"I hope that's not any different in family and prime-time programming, because I know what I like. Certainly the creative process is not different: A good script is a good script. Interesting characters are interesting characters.

"I've always identified with the guy in the Midwest or in the South or the suburbs much more than I have with this industry. . . . I'm no different than the guy down the street. It's just tapping into that and recognizing that. I'm not thinking because I'm here in Hollywood in a fancy office that I know something that they don't know. Au contraire. I think I know what they know. The mistake people make is a lack of respect for the audience."

Loesch has some formidable resources at her disposal. In addition to its Hallmark Hall of Fame productions, Hallmark has been behind such network miniseries as "Gulliver's Travels," "Merlin" and, yes, "The Odyssey," which will all eventually air on Odyssey, as will "The Muppet Show" and other Henson properties. The two companies will also create original programming for the network, including series and movies.

Odyssey won't directly seek the children's audience, in part because Loesch thinks that market is now well-served by the numerous services that cater to kids--an area that has "come a long way" since she began her career. Back then, children's TV consisted almost exclusively of the three networks' Saturday morning fare, with reruns airing in syndication during the week.

Even Nickelodeon didn't begin producing new animated shows--a cup that now seems to run over--until Fox launched its children's network a decade ago.

"There's a wide variety and some pretty good shows," Loesch said. "There's always room for improvement, but now that kids' television is viewed as a business . . . we're getting better and better at knowing how to conduct that business, which is making shows for kids."

Given how complex and crowded the TV dial has become, the business of convincing people to add another network to their menu of choices looks like a job for one of those superheroes Loesch helped bring to life on Fox. Still, if track records stand for anything, this Odyssey promises to someday be an adventure worth taking.

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