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Are Family Shows Risky? Pax TV Will Find Out

This fall, as CBS unveils "The Howard Stern Radio Show" and ABC airs its special "Sex With Cindy Crawford," the new Pax TV network will offer viewers wholesome alternatives like "Promised Land" and "Highway to Heaven."

The question is: Will taking the highroad become a highway-to-heavenly profits?

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Launching a new television network in today's hotly competitive media environment, where even long-established networks are struggling financially, strikes some analysts as a risky venture.

Especially when only one of the existing six national television networks is turning a healthy profit. While NBC is well in the black this year, ABC and Fox are generating small earnings and CBS, UPN, and WB are losing money, say analysts.

The downturn in revenues stems in part from the behavior of broadcast-television viewers, who are spending more time watching cable-network shows and culling news and entertainment from the Internet.

Although made up of 88 UHF broadcast stations across the nation, Pax TV (formerly known as Pax Net) in many ways resembles a cable network. Pax TV is paying cable systems to carry it and targeting a niche audience. Its measure of success sounds more suitable for a niche cable channel than a broadcaster: Pax TV president and chief executive officer Jeff Sagansky (see profile, facing page) has said he'd be happy if the network drew a one rating, which is equivalent to just under 1 million households.

"It's a model that hasn't been tried before," says Derek Baine, senior analyst at Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm based in Carmel, Calif. "It's the first time anyone's had this many stations with this large a footprint," says Mr. Baine, referring to the estimated 74 million households Pax TV will reach when it launches Aug. 31.

Pax TV's slogan, "a friend of the family," promises a dignified refuge from the vast wasteland of television. But Allen Banks, executive media director, North America for Saatchi & Saatchi advertising, isn't convinced.

"Pax [TV] is not must-see TV," he says. "The fact that Pax Net says it's family-friendly doesn't mean we're suddenly going to find families clustered around the TV set as they were in the 1940s."

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The network's core programming, while a hit with older women viewers, isn't likely to attract enough of the 18-to-49-year-old audience to pique major interest from national advertisers, says Mr. Banks.

That's not to say Pax TV won't have a core viewership. Some of the highest-rated shows on cable are actually reruns of successful network series, known as "off-network" programs. The hit NBC series "Law & Order," for example, is one of A&E's most popular shows.

More than 80 percent of Pax TV's programs will be off-network shows, which virtually guarantee a built-in audience. And Pax TV can air such shows more frequently because they are no longer "first-run" programming.

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