A group of advertisers has come up with a brilliant campaign to convince Washington and the religious right that they, too, are sick and tired of all the sex and violence on television.
Here's how it works:
Step 1. Create a group called the Family Friendly Programming Forum with the stated goal of encouraging more shows for family viewing in the 8-to-10 p.m. block of prime time. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which is the driving force behind the forum, promises it will use its Washington office to "facilitate discussions of TV content on Capitol Hill and in government agencies."
Step 2. Announce an awards ceremony to recognize excellence in family-friendly programming, to be held Sept. 9 in Beverly Hills.
Step 3. Give the fledgling WB network some tip money (by advertising standards) to pay for the writing of "family-friendly" scripts. The deal is leaked to the Wall Street Journal, which runs a story saying the advertisers are "fed up with sex and violence during prime-time viewing hours." Story hits Associated Press wires and is picked up by newspapers around the country. The Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association fires off a news release praising the advertiser effort.
The total amount given to the network is under $1 million--about the cost of creating eight scripts and half the cost of one episode of a drama series. But it's a no-brainer for WB because the network has burned through millions of its own dollars in failed attempts to find a family-friendly companion show for the family-friendly "Seventh Heaven" on Monday. And that "Seventh Heaven: Beginnings" rerun package, which was supposed to be a temporary fix for the Sunday 7 p.m. hour, was kinda embarrassing to announce again for the fall, so it'd be nuts not to accept a few scripts that might turn into a show for that hour.
Finally, Step 4. Announce scholarships to teach aspiring writers how to craft family-friendly programming.
Sounds great. And sure to make the Brent Bozells of the world very happy. You see, several members of the Family Friendly Programming Forum--including Procter & Gamble, General Motors and McDonald's--are on a list compiled by Bozell's Parents Television Council of most frequent sponsors of shows containing an "objectionable" amount of sex, "obscene language" and/or violence. Other forum-ites who pop up as sponsors of "Red Light" shows are AT&T, Warner-Lambert, Nestle, Coca-Cola and Sears. (It should be noted that some of the same names appear on Bozell's list of frequent advertisers on family-friendly fare.)
Which, if you look at the fine print in the forum's mission statement, pretty well sums up the game plan--quietly advertising on the kind of shows that drive the Bozells of the world crazy--"edgy content" in forum-speak--while loudly and publicly pronouncing their appetite for family-friendly fare.
Look closely at the forum Web site and you'll read the following statements:
* "We support a wide range of programming options, and we will continue to advertise on shows that appeal to different target audiences."
* "Forum participants have also stressed that censorship of edgier content is not an objective."
"Many of these members of the forum plan to continue to advertise in edgy programming . . . because that's appropriate for a brand," ANA Senior Vice President Robin Webster explained.
The forum, she said, is "not looking to get rid of anything that's there."
Understandably, one of the forum's most intense debates to date has been exactly how to define family-friendly programming. In the end, says Webster, who's been charged with running the awards voting and ceremony, the group decided that a "family" was defined as a household unit with at least one parent and that a family-friendly show had to be one that the average parent would not be embarrassed to watch with a child 18 or younger.
But there's more.
A family-friendly program has to have "substance." "It's all right if it has edgy subjects," she explained, such as teenage sex, so long as there is "value to the message" and some "substance to it."
How about homosexual teenage sex, we asked?
Okey-dokey, said Webster, so long as there's that message with value. In other words, "Dawson's Creek"--the WB show that this past season featured a teenage boy who came out of the closet and had a tough time of it--is in, she said.
This will not make the Brent Bozells of the world happy. Bozell almost never mentions "Dawson's Creek" without the word "trash" in front of it.
Also on the "in" list is NBC's broadcast of "Schindler's List," which was the first network broadcast ever to get a TV-M content rating, meaning for mature audiences only. NBC put that rating on its broadcast of the much-heralded Steven Spielberg movie about the Holocaust because of its very disturbing story, which contains nudity, adult language and very graphic violence. But, notes Webster, "it's the kind of thing that opens a dialogue with a family."
On the other hand, HBO's much-heralded 13-hour Tom Hanks miniseries about the Apollo space program, "From the Earth to the Moon," does not qualify for a Family Friendly Programming Forum award.
Because of its content.
Specifically, because its content didn't include ads.
The FFPF is, after all, a bunch of advertisers trying to encourage family-friendly programming in which they can advertise.
Conan O'Brien's couch will be a little lighter next spring.
Sidekick Andy Richter says he's leaving "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" at the end of next season. He made the surprise announcement at the close of Wednesday night's broadcast.
The two have been partnered since the NBC show first aired, replacing David Letterman, who left the network in a huff in 1993.
"Late Night" producer Jeff Ross told trade paper Variety that Richter is leaving "to go and figure out what else he can do." He insisted the exit was voluntary and "amicable."
A new sidekick has yet to be named. Ross said it's unclear if Richter's replaceable.
CAPTION: Stephen Collins and Deborah Raffin in "Seventh Heaven." Advertisers want to create similar "family-friendly" fare.