Sunday, August 06, 2000

P&G exec reviving family TV

'Mr. Clean' leads advertisers promoting options at 8 p.m.

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bob Wehling, father of six daughters, has two new girls to boast about — the Gilmore Girls.

        Gilmore Girls, a new fall drama on the WB network, is the first prime-time series produced through Mr. Wehling's Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of major advertisers founded last year to increase family series on network TV.

[photo] Bob Wehling has become a force in the television industry.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        “I've been after the networks for 20 years on this subject of family-friendly programming,” says Mr. Wehling, Procter & Gamble's senior executive for global marketing, consumer and market knowledge and government relations.

        Mr. Wehling is TV's Mr. Clean, a tireless advocate for wholesome family entertainment. In spring of 1999, he co-founded the forum, which paid WB for development of the Gilmore Girls, a series about a single mother (Lauren Graham) and her 16-year-old daughter.

        “What we're trying to do is find more positive options for families on the broadcast networks in the 8 p.m. time periods,” Mr. Wehling says.

        “We want programming that multigenerations can watch together — a mother and a daughter or son, and a grandmother, and all find it entertaining and relevant, without having it be embarrassing, particularly for the mother or father.”

        The forum also is trying to increase the awareness of quality family shows with the debut telecast of the Family Television Awards on CBS (9 p.m. Thursday, Channels 12, 7).

        “We're trying to promote these shows, and celebrate this kind of (family-themed) work in the Hollywood community so it will, hopefully, inspire more writers and producers to develop and write this kind of material,” he says.

        Those who know Mr. Wehling — and his volunteer work for education and children's programs on the local, state and national level — realize that he's not just carrying out the squeaky-clean agenda of P&G, the nation's largest soap maker and second-largest advertiser. (General Motors is the largest.)

  The 43 members of the Family Friendly Programming Forum are:
        Ace Hardware; American Airlines; AT&T; BellSouth; Bestfoods; Bristol-Myers Squibb; Coca-Cola; ConAgra Inc.; Eastman Kodak; FedEx; Ford Motor Co.; General Motors; Gillette; Hallmark Cards; Hershey Foods; H&R Bloock; IBM; Johnson & Johnson; Kellogg; KFC; Liberty Mutual; McCormick & Co.; McDonald's; M&M/Mars; Merck & Co.; Nabisco; Nationwide; Nestle USA; Pfizer; Pillsbury; Procter & Gamble; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; SBC Communications; Schering-Plough Corp.; SmithKline Beecham Consumer Healthcare; Spring Communications; State Farm Insurance; Tyson Foods; Unilever Unted States; Verizon; Warner-Lambert Consumer Group (a division of Pfizer); Welch Foods; and Wendy's International.

  Who Wants to be a Millionaire, The Wonderful World of Disney, Everybody Loves Raymond and National Geographic Explorer were among the programs honored at the second annual Family Television Awards Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif.
  Seven shows and two individuals were saluted for their outstanding work in family-friendly television entertainment. The ceremony will be broadcast by CBS on Thursday (9 p.m., Channels 12, 7):
  The winners:
  Comedy: Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS)
  Drama: The West Wing (NBC)
  Alternative programming: Who Wants to be a Millionaire (ABC)
  Reality programming: National Georgraphic Explorer (WTBS, CNBC)
  Inspiring stories/pride in our heritage: Biography (A&E)
  Movies/miniseries/specials: Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays with Morrie (ABC)
  Actor: Michael J. Fox (ABC's Spin City)
  Actress: Della Reese (CBS' Touched by an Angel)
  Lifetime achievement: The Wonderful World of Disney (ABC)
        For this Wyoming resident, who lists “Sunday School Teacher 1966-89” on his resume, the goal of reviving family TV shows is deeply personal.

        “The Family Friendly Forum is fundamentally on behalf of the company, but I personally subscribe to all of this. I've got 15 grandchildren that I'd like to have grow up in an atmosphere of quality programs,” he says.

        “If we could reclaim that (8 p.m.) hour, before kids go to bed, I think it would be a much, much better environment for advertisers, and for the people of this country.”

        Over lunch in Hollywood last year, Mr. Wehling told WB Chief Executive Jamie Kellner he would like to see more TV shows like 7th Heaven, WB's top-rated show about a minister's family.

        “So I told Bob, "Put your money where your mouth is,'” Mr. Kellner recalls.

        “I told him: "If you guys want to put up a script development fund, we will develop more in the family category, the 8 p.m. (show) category, so more writers could come up with something,'” he says.

        So Mr. Wehling, Andrea Alstrup from Johnson & Johnson, and 10 other members of the Association of National Advertisers put up more than $1 million for scripts over which they would have no control or influence. Mr. Kellner put out the word that WB wanted family-oriented dramas and comedies.

        Eight family scripts were written, an additional 20 percent over WB's 40 fall series concepts. Two of the eight were filmed as pilots, an astonishing percentage in a business where most pilot scripts are never shot. One, Gilmore Girls, was good enough to make WB's fall lineup at 8 p.m. Thursdays.

        “Neither Jamie nor I knew what would be the result of this (script) program. They did a broad search — and eight were pretty good,” says Mr. Wehling, 61, a Chicago native who joined P&G in 1960 straight out of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

        Ms. Graham (M.Y.O.B., NewsRadio) stars as a single mother managing a New England inn and raising a teen-age daughter (newcomer Alexis Bledel) she had at age 16. Kelly Bishop (Dirty Dancing) and Edward Herrmann (The Practice, and the voice of the “Dodge Different” TV commercials) play her wealthy parents who haven't forgiven her for not marrying the baby's father.

        “What I love about Gilmore Girls is that it isn't a traditional family. But half of all American families don't have two parents,” says Mr. Kellner, who launched the WB in 1995, nine years after presiding over the birth of Fox Broadcasting.

        Chief programmers at rival networks — ABC's Stu Bloomberg, NBC's Garth Ancier and CBS' Les Moonves — said they are very impressed by the Gilmore Girls during the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif. Many TV critics also said Gilmore Girls was among the top 10 new fall shows.

        Mr. Wehling has declared the experiment a success. Script development funds have been renewed for a second year at WB, and Mr. Wehling has discussed a similar arrangement with CBS' Mr. Moonves.

        And forum membership has quadrupled to include an “A” list of U.S. companies: AT&T, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Motors, Hallmark Cards, Hershey Foods, Nestle, IBM, KFC, McDonald's, Wendy's, Nabisco, Pillsbury, Sears, State Farm and Nationwide.

        “We're going to keep banging away at this, until we make a significant difference,” Mr. Wehling says.

        Mr. Wehling's search for more shows like 7th Heaven has become increasingly difficult on the modern TV landscape.

        As networks target viewers ages 18-49, family shows such as Home Improvement, Full House, Roseanne and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman have been squeezed out of the picture by adult-oriented ensemble comedies (Friends, Seinfeld) and sexually charged dramas (Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson's Creek).

        “Twenty years ago, it really wasn't a problem to find a lot of family programming at 8 p.m.,” Mr. Wehling says. “For the last 10 years, the 8 p.m. time period has been under severe attack.”

        Network programming chiefs and producers applaud Mr. Wehling's efforts for two reasons:

        • Most sitcom writers want to do smart adult comedies like Frasier, says Mr. Ancier, NBC Entertainment president.

        “The better producers who do sophisticated shows won't touch a family show. Most producers who are parents don't want to write about kids,” he says.

        • Most one-hour drama producers prefer police, action or sci-fi shows because those programs draw bigger ratings for reruns and reap huge profits from overseas sales, says veteran producer Aaron Spelling, whose credits range from 90210, Melrose Place, Dynasty, Vega$, Starsky & Hutch to 7th Heaven.

        The forum's seed money “will help the networks turn to more family programs,” Mr. Spelling says.

        Touched by an Angel producer Martha Williamson praises Mr. Wehling and his colleagues for using their clout.

        “Viewers don't understand the tremendous power that advertisers have, and some of them are not using it,” she says.

        “A lot of advertisers are just looking at the bottom line, and saying, "Get us the demographics, we don't care how.' And I think that's wrong,” says Ms. Williamson, whose Touched By An Angel was one of the forum's inaugural Family Television Award winners last September. Also honored were 7th Heaven, ABC's “TGIF” Friday lineup (since dismantled) and, for lifetime achievement, The Cosby Show.

        More family shows will breed even more family shows in the copycat TV industry. That's the cyclical nature of the business.

        “When Friends and Seinfeld became huge, the old family shows like Roseanne and Home Improvement fell out of favor,” says Amy Sherman-Palladino, a former Roseanne writer who created Gilmore Girls.

        “Everything is cyclical. They'll come back. Another new show will break out — the next Roseanne or the next Tim Allen — and suddenly everyone will be doing family shows instead of ensemble comedies set in New York.”

        In a glass case outside Mr. Wehling's 11th floor office at P&G headquarters is the company's 1991 Emmy, a Daytime Lifetime Achievement Award “for half a century of contributing to the development of the daytime drama art form.”

        But P&G, which created radio's “soap opera” in 1932, never has been able to replicate its daytime soap opera success in prime-time.

        Mr. Wehling's 40 years at P&G have taught him that a single company — even one that spends $1.68 billion a year in advertising and marketing — can't compete in prime-time against the major networks and studios.

        P&G's attempts to produce its own series have been abandoned in recent years in favor of the company taking equity stakes in King of Queens, Family Law, Becker, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Young Americans through partnerships with Paramount and Columbia-TriStar studios. (Those deals also resulted in aborted arrangements with three shows too hot for P&G to handle, WB's Dawson's Creek, UPN's short-lived Head over Heels dating-service comedy and Laura Schlessinger's fall Dr. Laura syndicated talk show.)

        TV programming “is a tough, tough business,” Mr. Wehling says. “We concluded that it was too tough a business to do as a small independent office out there (in Los Angeles), that the odds were too much against us.”

        So he figured that if America's biggest advertisers banded together, they could change the prime-time TV picture. Network executives commend Mr. Wehling and the forum for working with them, not against them.

        “Some people start screaming "Boycott!' as opposed to saying, "How do we work together constructively?'” says Mr. Moonves, CBS Television president and CEO. “We like what Bob stands for, and what he's trying to do. He's the real McCoy.”

        Adds WB's Mr. Kellner: “Bob's such a family man, and he legitimately feels this would be great for television, if there were more family shows, and we agree.”

        Mr. Wehling sees the forum as a long-term partnership between corporate America and broadcasters.

        “If you could look ahead three, four or five years down the road, we'd like to have three or four of these script development deals with different networks, so we increase the odds of successful family series populating the 8 p.m. time period,” he says.

        “I understand the business well enough to know that this could take us several years to develop enough shows that do well enough with the audience, so we change the makeup of the 8 p.m. time period and make it more family friendly.

        “I really believe we're going to make a difference.”


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