Rev. Eric isn’t dying, just his show

STEPHEN COLLINS is relieved he won’t have to die on TV.

The 59-year-old actor has played the Rev. Eric Camden, the wise and whimsical patriarch on the CW’s family drama “7th Heaven,” for 11 seasons -- 243 episodes in all, an eternity in television.

As the series marches toward its last episode Sunday, some have feared that the heart problems the producers gave Eric might prove conveniently, well, terminal. But luckily for “7th Heaven’s” savagely devoted fan base, dark clouds seldom linger for long over Glen Oak, the kind of utopian California burg that could sprout, Brigadoon-like, only in prime time. It’s not spoiling anyone’s surprise to report that no, the final act doesn’t culminate with the good pastor biting the dust in gauzy soft-focus as angels sing and organs chime.

“I’m glad he didn’t have a deathbed scene in the final episode,” Collins (no relation) told me last week. “That would have been unnerving for people.”


Fans may be unnerved anyway, though, by what the demise of “7th Heaven” and another CW home-and-hearth staple, “Gilmore Girls,” whose cancellation was announced Thursday, means for the type of scripted programming often dubbed family-friendly.

Everyone -- network executives, major advertisers, ordinary folk answering poll questions -- seems to agree, or at least say they agree, that network television needs more shows about families, for families. And yet that’s not what’s on during prime time these days, as cable TV and the Internet keep carving up viewers into smaller and smaller niche audiences. In fact, “7th Heaven” and “Gilmore Girls” are among the very last family-centered, non-crime-oriented dramas on over-the-air TV. Other existing examples, including ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” and NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” tackle more sophisticated themes and really aren’t intended for young kids. And ABC’s “Ugly Betty” is a hybrid comedy-drama combining workplace and home life elements.

It’s yet another strange turn for network TV, where there always used to be room in the pipeline for broad, multi-generational dramas such as “The Waltons,” “Eight Is Enough” or, more recently, the WB Network’s “Everwood.” These days, millions of families sit down together to watch “American Idol,” but that variety-cum-reality show has more in common with Ed Sullivan than John-Boy Walton.

It’s not that writers have forgotten how to make family shows. It’s just that such material has become a hard sell in pitch meetings with network and studio executives. “Development-wise, it doesn’t appear to be what people want to hear,” said Chris Olsen, a longtime executive producer on “7th Heaven” who’s contemplating his next project.

A durable formula

THAT raises an obvious question: Why? What network wouldn’t want a show that tries to appeal to every member of the household and raises no red flags for advertisers, who are particularly skittish after the recent firestorm over Don Imus’ racial and sexual insults?

Mind you, this isn’t intended as a brief for “7th Heaven,” which could be every bit as syrupy and square as critics said it was. Collins remarked that creator and executive producer Brenda Hampton has “a talent akin to Frank Capra’s,” and sure enough the penultimate episode, which aired Sunday night, found the entire town waiting at the church, apparently for hours on end, as Rev. Camden underwent hospital treatment. It was the kind of sentimental uplift that wouldn’t be out of place in Capra’s films -- “Capra-corn,” some aptly dubbed them -- but that happens in real life absolutely never. The show carefully sidestepped or soft-pedaled controversial issues such as abortion rights and homosexuality, and it also inevitably lost some of its early vigor as Eric and wife Annie (Catherine Hicks) aged and verged closer to empty-nest syndrome. (Hampton declined to comment for this column.)

But “7th Heaven” wasn’t entirely without teeth, either, especially in its first few seasons. In the 1996 pilot episode, Hampton exhibited a certain amount of courage, not to mention a deft handling of tone, in constructing a major plot point about 12-year-old Lucy (Beverley Mitchell) and her comic misadventures with a tampon.

The media never fell in love with the show, but “7th Heaven” was for most of its life the most-watched series on the WB; the February 1999 episode in which Annie gave birth to twin boys gathered a record-high 12.5 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Executives announced they would end the show in May 2006, but just days after the high-rated finale aired, they reversed course and brought it back for an 11th season.

Historians and trivia collectors will surely note that “7th Heaven” will go down as the last series on TV produced under the aegis of Aaron Spelling, the mogul who died last June and is mainly associated with fluffy, crowd-pleasing fare like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Melrose Place.” Hampton may have created the show, but credit Spelling for figuring out how to make the Camdens palatable to a mass audience by peppering all the Capra-corn with just enough teen angst -- and eye candy like Jessica Biel, who left the show in 2003 -- to keep things interesting. “Not exploitive but sexy,” was how TV historian and Lifetime Entertainment research executive Tim Brooks described the “7th Heaven” formula, and “Gilmore Girls” and “Everwood” ended up following similar blueprints.

“7th Heaven” was Spelling’s shot at redemption of a sort, a chance to see if he could popularize something more substantial than comely female detectives in bikinis. “My husband always felt that the media didn’t like him, or like his shows,” Candy Spelling, the producer’s widow, told me. “ ‘It covered all bases’ -- that’s how he put it,” she added, referring to “7th Heaven.”

Whether future producers will get the chance to cover those bases remains to be seen, but some analysts are optimistic. “There’s a clear appetite for” family-friendly programming, Brooks said. “A lot of Americans want a refuge from the sex and violence on TV.”

Advertisers are on board too. For years, a consortium of 40 major sponsors, including Procter & Gamble and FedEx, have funded the Family Friendly Programming Forum, which underwrites script development programs and scholarships for students interested in producing family entertainment. “Our goal is to see that at least one alternative programming slot is on” in each prime-time slot between 8 and 10 p.m., said Procter & Gamble executive Pat Gentile, the forum’s co-chair.

Unfortunately, many of the shows seeded by the forum, including “Commander in Chief” and “American Dreams,” haven’t been able to hang on to an audience over the long term. And Gentile’s use of the word “alternative” to describe family-friendly shows makes it clear that trying to get the entire family to gather around the sofa is, like programming on Saturday nights, no longer a priority among network executives.

Collins, for his part, said, “A lot of parents tell me, '["7th Heaven”] is the only show my kids let us watch with them,’ ” “That kind of family viewing is almost alien to kids now. They don’t expect to watch shows with their parents; they think that’s kind of odd.”

But those who see a place for the family genre in the ever-growing TV universe shouldn’t lose all hope. Rev. Camden may be striding off stage, but the man who played him still believes in resurrection: “I have a feeling,” he said, “the form will rise again.”


The Channel Island column appears Mondays in Calendar.