So where was God when Bud Paxson was selling his family-friendly Pax-TV network down the river to NBC--that cesspool of sex ("Friends"), violence ("Profiler") and "alternative lifestyles" ("Will & Grace")?
Paxson, you will remember, said that God helped him broker the deals that made possible the launch of his broadcast network in August of '98.
But he and NBC announced yesterday that the peacock network is buying a 32 percent stake in Paxson's TV station group in a deal that allows NBC to take over the fledgling network in February of 2002.
And when it does, it's bye-bye family-friendly--hello "Will & Grace" reruns. When he started the network, Paxson promised that Pax-TV would not put on any shows that "He might not want to watch." That meant no programming from "so-called creative people" peddling "every kind of alternative language and lifestyle to our kids," especially in the 8-9 p.m. "family hour," Pax promised in an ad that ran in the Hollywood trade papers just before it debuted.
So Paxson has packed his network with wholesome stuff, like "It's a Miracle," "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and "Little Men," as well as reruns of old series like "Bonanza" and some not so old series, including " Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Touched by an Angel."
Yesterday, however, Paxson told reporters that he feels "very much at home here at NBC." A bit of a surprise, no? NBC is the network that airs the sexual romp "Friends" at 8 p.m. NBC is also home to "Will & Grace," which has two openly homosexual men in lead roles. NBC is the network that won't participate in the programming content ratings system.
So what does this mean for his "highly God-driven" network, as he once described it to Christianity Today magazine?
"The family friendly--the no excessive sex, the no excessive violence and foul language--is going to still apply to the programming that is on Pax-TV, during the near future," Paxson said.
"After they own it, they can make that decision on their own," he said of the NBC folks.
That decision's already been made. NBC CEO Bob Wright made quite plain yesterday what his plans were for the network: rerunning NBC series.
"In an era where original programming on television gets smaller shares every year, it's pretty obvious to me that we have to find ways to increase the initial audiences for new programming. Pax Net may be a great way to do that," Wright said.
"You need to have a lot more people watching original programming on television to enable that programming to be successful enough to be around for a long time, so that it can get to syndication," he said.
Now, NBC can't do this with every series it broadcasts. Some series it gets from other production companies, including "Friends," "Frasier" and "ER." In those cases, the network buys the right to air each episode two or three times. It must recoup the fee it pays the studio and cut a profit from ad sales on those few runs only, which is tough to do when you're paying $13.5 million an episode for "ER," or even $6 million an episode for "Friends" while their audiences are shrinking.
"It's going to look like we were insane when we try to explain that to reporters five years from now," Wright said of that business model.
But when the network owns the series--as in the case of "Will & Grace" or "Providence"--it can run each episode as often as it likes. That is one of the reasons you're seeing networks produce more programming in-house and merge with studios--as in last week's CBS/Viacom deal.
There's another reason that NBC will probably dump most of Pax-TV's lineup. It skews really old. Really old doesn't sell well on Madison Avenue. NBC doesn't even discuss its viewers who are over 55 when it puts out its weekly press release on ratings.
Unfortunately, viewers aged 55 plus are Pax-TV's biggest audience. Since last September, it's been averaging nearly half a million of them in prime time--out of a total prime-time audience of just under one million viewers. Conversely, Pax-TV's been averaging only about 35,000 teen viewers in prime time for the past year.
But until February of 2002, NBC will not have controlling interest in Pax-TV, so the network will continue with its current niche programming strategy. But you will see some NBC programming on Pax pretty quickly--the family friendly stuff. Specifically, movies, miniseries and specials, said Pax CEO Jeff Sagansky.
"They put so much marketing muscle behind those and create so much awareness and invariably those shows only run once; we would be the beneficiary of a second window," Sagansky said.
There's only one thing that could gum up NBC's takeover. It's not restricted by that 1996 Telecommunications Act, which prohibits one of the Big Four from buying one of the little fry, Paxson insists, because Pax-TV wasn't around when that bit of rulemaking was passed--only UPN and WB.
But NBC is currently not allowed to own TV stations covering more than 35 percent of the country's available audience. A majority stake in Pax-TV would put it over that cap. So NBC executives will join CBS honchos in an aggressive bid to get that cap increased if not eliminated altogether. Without that change, NBC won't be able to take over Pax- TV and turn it into the NBC Rerun Network.
Maybe that's where God steps back in?
Ray Suarez is staying public, but leaving radio for TV.
Suarez, host of National Public Radio's popular afternoon call-in show, "Talk of the Nation," is leaving to become a senior correspondent for the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," public TV's evening news show, NPR says. He will also be a fill-in anchor for Lehrer. His last radio show will be Sept. 23; he will debut on TV on Oct. 4.
Since Suarez took over "Talk of the Nation" in 1993, the show's audience has doubled to 2 million listeners on 148 public radio stations. Before coming to NPR, he was CNN's Los Angeles correspondent.
CAPTION: Amazing, Grace: Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes in "Will & Grace," which may soon be seen in reruns on Pax-TV.