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All in the Family? Not at NBC

In January 1999, NBC's new entertainment chief, Scott Sassa, declared that parents "want to watch [TV] with their kids," and that his network "should have some shows" featuring "traditional families." Last week, Sassa reversed himself completely. NBC has no plans to launch any family series, he announced, because they don't appeal to his web's "upscale" audience.

What kind of chance did Sassa give family programming over those three years? Well, in 2000 NBC aired "Daddio," a pleasant sitcom centered on a stay-at-home father, and then there was...well, let's see...actually, "Daddio" has pretty much been the extent of the Peacock's family-friendly series efforts between early '99 and early '02. In the same period, plenty of raunchy NBC programs have come and soon gone, but Sassa apparently hasn't drawn any larger lessons from the failure of the forgettable "Cold Feet," or "The Weber Show," or "Inside Schwartz."

Maybe Sassa thinks those series failed because they weren't raunchy enough. He told a recent gathering of television critics that while he doesn't want to, in Associated Press reporter David Bauder's paraphrase, "shock...people with adult-oriented themes and dialogue," he also is obligated to "respond to HBO's success with shows like the Emmy-winning 'Sex and the City.'" (Why is almost-anything-goes HBO the cable trendsetter? Why don't the broadcast networks ever feel obligated to respond to the success of family-oriented Nickelodeon?)

Sassa's statements of late ought to surprise no one who follows the television business. NBC has long styled itself as the smart, hip network - in other words, the network that best reflects the cultural elitism of Hollywood itself. In that context, to shun wholesome programming and the supposedly downscale types who gravitate towards it is perfectly logical.

Among Sassa's reasons for disdaining family shows is his claim that it's hard to find acting and writing talent for them. This is ludicrous. Hollywood is filled with talented pro-family actors, writers, producers, and directors - many with Emmys on their mantels - but NBC just doesn't want them.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with two NBC vice presidents a few years ago. I asked them why their network wouldn't air any family-friendly series. With a straight face, one of those veeps answered that ever since the death of Michael Landon, NBC had found it impossible to do one. Somehow, I was to believe, only Landon could make it work.

Apparently virtually no talent is required for non-family-oriented NBC programs. Take a scene from a fall episode of "Will & Grace." Jack, a thirtyish gay man, puts on an apron. After Grace says aloud what's printed on the part of the apron that's in front of Jack's crotch - "Kiss the Cook" - Jack exclaims, "What? 'Cook'? That's an 'o'? That doesn't make any sense. Who goes on a date hoping someone will kiss their cook?"

In far happier news, ABC's new entertainment president is positioning herself as the anti-Sassa on the family-show issue. "The kind of programs you could watch with several generations by your side," Susan Lyne said last week, are "a historic strength at this network, and also a great strength at our parent company [Disney], so we should be embracing it."

Once upon a time, of course, ABC boasted many such shows, notably "Home Improvement," "Full House," and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Sadly, the network's commitment to the family audience then dwindled to the extent that in 2000 it scuttled its TGIF program block, a Friday staple for more than a decade.

I'm not completely optimistic about where ABC is headed under Lyne - she offered the often-coarse "Roseanne" as an example of a family series - but in general, I think she would agree with Steve Sternberg, an analyst with an ad-buying company, who remarked to USA Today, "Family-friendly programming...is a good idea...If you have kids, there ain't much on network TV [that] you can watch without being embarrassed."

Though the jury's still out where ABC is concerned, the verdict on NBC is in. The Peacock has abandoned families, so families should abandon the Peacock. If you oppose Scott Sassa's approach to prime time, stop watching his network. If enough viewers tune out, NBC will get the message that the family audience matters.