Fox says it will stick with kids

SAN FRANCISCO — Rankled by slipping ratings, lower spot ad sales and potential competition from News Corp.’s pending purchase of the Family Channel, some Fox affiliates at the spring meeting suggested yanking the Fox Children’s Network off broadcast TV.

At closed-door meetings, Barry Baker, president and CEO of Sinclair Communications, and Kevin O’Brien, president and general manager of KTVU San Francisco, said Fox should consider moving the Fox kids lineup onto cable, with stations keeping only the three-hour educational TV minimum, sources say.

Ratings, money concerns

Right now the Fox kids lineup includes a weekday afternoon and Saturday morning block. But with the network kids business facing stiffer competition from cable channels such as Nickelodeon, affiliates are concerned that ratings and ad dollars for Fox kids shows will shrink even more when News Corp. buys Intl. Family Entertainment and the Family Channel and fulfills its plan to put 12 hours of kids programming on the cabler.

Baker said markets below 50 are having the most problems now and stand to lose the most in the future. “A lot of spot kids dollars have evaporated in smaller markets,” he told Daily Variety.

While recognizing that stations are “worried and frightened,” Margaret Loesch, chairman and CEO of Fox Kids Networks, called the suggestion that stations phase out kids shows “just cynicism.” She added that some stations in small markets are doing very well with spot sales.

“We’re staying in the broadcast kids business,” Loesch said. “We’re building the cable channel not to cannibalize FCN, but to complement and promote it. Now, folks, is not the time to talk about getting out of the kids broadcasting business.”

Cross-promotion

Loesch said the Family Channel will initially air library programming, and eventually, Fox will try to counterprogram Family with shows targeting a different kids audience than Fox stations are airing in those same timeslots. There will be cross-promotion between the network and the cable channel.

Fox and its affiliates are expected to powwow in the next few months to hammer out the Family Channel plans in-depth. “We’re not going to make the cable channel look like FCN,” Loesch told Daily Variety. “We don’t want it to hurt FCN, and we won’t migrate shows to cable until the time is right.”

Baker’s and O’Brien’s comments may have been a tactic to encourage FCN to meet its promise to let affiliates share in the profits of the new FCN spinoff. A revised FCN affiliate contract is being drafted, but the Family Channel has added a wrinkle and slowed an agreement.

Ratings for FCN hit their peak a few years ago when both “The X-Men” and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” were introduced. But as the kids choices have increased, FCN ratings have slowly eroded — as they have in all of network TV.

As is typical when ratings head south, affils are handing some of the blame to Nielsen. Because smaller markets rely on diaries that parents are filling out on behalf of their kids, some shows don’t get the credit they deserve, Baker said.

“This will be a terrific business if two things happen: if FCN is able to develop hits in the tradition of ‘Power Rangers’ and if Nielsen can measure it,” he said.

New summer shows

FCN has not yet unveiled its complete fall lineup, but Loesch announced a new summer schedule at the affiliate meeting. Four new summer shows will be introduced, including the live action “Chimp Lips Theater” and “Round the Twist,” and the animated series “Stickin’ Around” and “Newton.”

While FCN will add 10 new kids shows this summer and fall, Loesch said FCN would try to make fewer scheduling changes because “we’ve been driving you crazy.” FCN also plans to introduce a new separate Friday lineup this fall to add momentum leading into the weekend.

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