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Advertisers fund family-friendly TV, win kudos

In the battle to change the sex-and-violence-laden culture Hollywood is accused of purveying, a coalition of the nation's top advertisers is using the ultimate industry weapon - money - to alter the course of television. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), a group of 33 companies, including some of the top corporate names in the United States (Johnson & Johnson, Sears Roebuck and Co., Procter & Gamble), has stepped forward with a wide-ranging collection of ideas aimed at improving the viewing choices for families on the broadcast TV networks.

They include:

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*A development fund to finance family-friendly scripts. The first deal, with Warner Bros., was announced in August.

*Underwriting scholarships at two film schools: New York University and the University of Southern California.

*A new slew of annual awards to identify high-quality, family-friendly programs. The first ceremony was held in September and honored shows such as "Touched by an Angel" and "7th Heaven."

"We don't want to just put out overnight headlines," says Robert Wehling, global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble and co-chair of The Family Friendly Programming Forum, which produced the awards. "We're here for the long haul, and we want to affect all the six major networks during that 8 o'clock time period when families will be watching."

Mr. Wehling adds that further events such as symposiums will create an ongoing relationship with the networks and writers. "I think we'll stimulate more writers to do more shows with higher quality, and it will feed on itself," he says. As for response from the networks, he adds, "You have 33 of our nation's major advertisers who are saying, 'We want better family programs.' I don't think they'll turn a deaf ear."

"They're trying something good," says Dick Clark, the veteran TV producer who has sold shows to nearly all the networks over the years. "These things don't happen immediately, but given the kinds of people participating, there's a really good chance of making a big difference."

Jamie Kellner, chief financial officer of The WB, has said that the forum's $900,000 fund for new scripts represents a commitment to family-friendly programming that is "consistent with our strategy."

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This initiative weighs in as a win-win strategy for advertisers and the networks. The advertisers garner praise for appearing to take strong action on behalf of the family (on Sept. 22, Congress passed a resolution commending The Family Friendly Programming Forum) and the networks get "free" script-development money with no strings attached. (The WB may pass up any script, but if it does it must then make it available to other networks.)

These advertisers, however, will continue to run commercials on shows with racier or edgier content.

Perhaps the only downside from such a visible approach to influencing content is a possible chill on writers' creativity. But so far, some of the most respected writers in the field of family programming say this initiative will only help.

"We need family programming that gives parents the opportunity to talk about extremely difficult things," says Martha Williamson, creator of "Touched by an Angel." "The ANA initiative will help encourage writers to pursue that sort of honesty in their scripts now that they know the networks have been put on notice that this is the sort of show [advertisers] will put their money on."

"[Bill] Cosby always said it was honesty and integrity that made [his show] so successful," says writer Rob Reiner, who accepted an ANA award on behalf of "The Cosby Show." "We need to give families the opportunity to have shared experiences in the home."

Some observers even suggest that a more direct advertiser relationship to programming could trigger a return to the adventurous, family-oriented shows that marked the early days of TV, such as "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

"You might begin to see the direct sponsorship of an entire hour come back," says Bill Cella of the advertising giant, McCann-Erickson, who was present at the ANA meetings in early 1998. The advertisers "began to see the need ... and now they're trying to help create something new."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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