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New TV Season: Family Shows Resurgent

Much has been said about the quality - or lack of quality, to be precise - of programming on prime time television. The mad dash toward anything-goes social and sexual liberalism, without a care in the world for its consequences on the public - especially impressionable children - has led to a nightly line-up dominated by ? garbage.

It's a crazy world in Television Land. It's also going in the opposite direction. Programs crafted with a family audience in mind, which endorse and promote traditional family values, which are designed with a real sense of social responsibility - series that were almost nonexistent two years ago - are slowly but surely growing in number.

The trailblazer in the rejuvenation of family programming was Ken Wales' "Christy," and as with many pioneering ventures, it never enjoyed the full confidence, and financial backing, of its network (CBS) to make it succeed. Yet the enthusiasm it triggered among those who watched it did capture the attention of some in Hollywood. CBS tried it again with Martha Williamson's beautiful "Touched By An Angel" and watched as in its second season it became a bona fide hit.

The new season offers several new selections, of which two, "Promised Land" and "7th Heaven" deserve applause - and market success.

Ms. Williamson's success with "Angel" landed her the opportunity to develop a new program for CBS, and again she's delivered with "Promised Land." The central character in "Promised Land," Russell Greene (Gerald McRaney) first made an appearance in an episode of "Angel." An unemployed factory worker despondent about the lack of direction in his life, Greene is befriended by one of the angels, who suggests he take to the road in search of ways to help his fellow man. Greene, with wife Claire, mother, two children and one nephew in tow, take a motor home and do just that. What they find on their travels is the basis for "Promised Land."

In the first episode they come to a small, economically depressed town having heard on the local radio that one of its residents, Greg Smith, is moving to New Zealand because "America [is turning] its back on its families, its values ... Whatever America once stood for, it has lost." The Greenes learn that most residents agree and so they set out to change things. They learn that Smith is especially dejected because a local youth center, to which he's devoted much time and energy, is scheduled for demolition to make room for a jail. Claire appeals to those Smith has helped through his volunteer efforts; many respond to her call. The sheriff, sensing the town's renewed desire for the youth center to remain, and the political ramifications the issue has for his re-election chances, changes his mind and the youth center stays. Smith changes his mind and decides to stay as well, a clear triumph for democracy and perseverance - and in trademark Williamson fashion, a celebration of the human spirit.

"7th Heaven" is more of a surprise. The new WB (Warner Brothers) television network, under the guidance of Jamie Kellner, has boldly announced its intention to capture the family market. The network was launched in the winter of '95 with two nights of original programming; this year it has added a third, and "7th Heaven" is its prime offering. Like "Promised Land" it has a Main Street USA setting and revolves around the everyday experiences of the Camdens: father, mother, and five children. What makes this family unique is the father's profession, an ordained minister, and the role he plays as both parent and spiritual leader.

When I met with Mr. Kellner several months ago, "7th Heaven" was in production and this, he told me, was going to be just the kind of show people like me were clamoring for. The pilot was a disappointment. One plotline focused on the younger daughter's desire to menstruate; another dealt with her older sister trying to practice kissing - with her brother. Well, forget the pilot: Someone obviously got the message because every episode since then has been a smashing success, with heart-warming stories centering around real-life experiences where serious lessons about love of family and dedication to community are taught.

Some might scoff at the motives behind "7th Heaven" and WB's commitment to family programming. Mr. Kellner, after all, was the driving force behind the anti-family trash on Fox; he is driven by the desire for financial success and sees family programming as WB's niche. But just as we shouldn't excuse what Fox does because it's business and not driven by ideology, so too should we not dismiss WB for the same reason. It's the product that matters, and on that score I wish the highest of ratings to both "Promised Land" and "7th Heaven."