By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
“7th Heaven,” The WB’s series about a minister, his wife and their seven children, has proved it has legs. As it begins its 10th season it will not only have set the record as the longest-running family drama in TV history, it will mark the milestone with its 200th episode.
The show, which premiered Aug. 26, 1996, as one of The WB’s inaugural efforts, now not only tops “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons” for endurance among family dramas, it has been its network’s highest-rated series for the past seven seasons.
Created by Brenda Hampton, who remains its executive producer and showrunner, “7th Heaven” is supplied to The WB by Spelling Television, a Paramount/Viacom company. Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent executive produce along with Ms. Hampton.
“‘7th Heaven’ has been taken to heart by the TV audience for 10 years not only because it’s good, but because it is a show that has always had a window for every member of the family,” said David Janollari, president of entertainment for The WB. “No matter what your age or gender, there’s a character with whom you can relate.”
“Its importance to our network has been enormous,” Mr. Janollari said. “But even more so when you realize it has remained in its Monday night at 8 p.m. slot its entire run. Other shows on our network through the years, such as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or ‘Dawson’s Creek’ have received more press attention perhaps. But when it comes to ratings, ‘7th Heaven’ has always been stronger.”
During the 2004-05 broadcast season, the series earned a 3.6/6 rating and share, according to Nielsen Media Research. This was in line with the 2003-04 season, when it finished with a 3.8/6.
“7th Heaven” revolves around the Rev. Eric Camden (Stephen Collins), his wife, Annie (Catherine Hicks), and their children and extended family, friends and parishioners living in a Los Angeles suburb. While Eric Camden is a member of the clergy, this was only revealed halfway through the pilot episode and is not the focal point of the drama. The show has spiritual elements, but it has not attempted to cross into divine intercession, as such efforts as “Touched by an Angel” and “Joan of Arcadia” have done.
It is, the network insists, a family drama.
Bill Carroll, who as VP and director of programming for Katz Media TV monitors the dial, thinks that the ongoing popularity of the series is due to its intentional appeal across the generations. Although The WB has other programs that are more specifically designed to target teens, “7th Heaven” is its second-highest-rated show among that demographic, and its highest-rated show among women 18 to 49.
“It’s not just that it’s a family drama,” Mr. Carroll said. “It’s a family drama that captures the trials and tribulations of the young people who are part of the family. That’s what makes it most unique. And what it has given The WB is stability during the formative and often turbulent years any new network has.”
“The show is the closest to a mainstream network show that The WB has,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of research for TVtracker.com, which researches the television spectrum. “And I think another reason it has survived is because it has continued to make financial sense to the network.
“You look at a show like ‘Desperate Housewives’ on ABC. In its second season the cast is already getting huge bonuses, the license fee is already way higher, but the cost of ‘7th Heaven’ has not become prohibitive-it’s about $1.5 million per episode. That’s another tribute to Aaron Spelling, who is adept at creating business models that work.”
The genesis of “7th Heaven” dates to 1995, when Ms. Hampton, a writer-producer who had made a name working on sitcoms such as “Blossom” and “Mad About You” but had never written one-hour dramas, was asked to pitch a family show to Mr. Spelling.
She now admits, “I really only took that meeting because I wanted to meet Aaron Spelling. I was working on ‘Mad About You’ and the schedule was so hectic that I did not start writing the pitch until the night before and finished it on the way to the meeting.”
Ms. Hampton noted that making the central male character a minister was not done with dramatic intent. The character of the Rev. Camden “was simply inspired by a friend in New York named Eric Kolbell, who was both a minister and a family counselor, which is what I made Eric Camden. I had worked at NBC with Annie Kolbell, his wife. Thus, the lead characters became Eric and Annie.”
When the pilot script was written, Mr. Collins’ agent called him and said he would be getting a firm offer to play the lead.
“She said it was something I’d want to turn down,” Mr. Collins said. “It was on The WB, which was just starting. It was from Aaron Spelling, who was known for doing glitzy series. And the kiss of death-it was a family show.”
Yet Mr. Collins found himself drawn to the project.
“As an actor your gut tells you to say yes or no,” he said. “And if you say no, you might say yes if they offer enough money. In this case, it was not only a wonderful script, it was something that came at a time when I was finding myself as a parent and as a person who had returned to going to church after many years away. This show has allowed me to explore my emotional life as a parent and as a person of faith-I’m not a noisy Christian, but I do go to church.”
Like Mr. Collins, Ms. Hicks also was hesitant to take the part.
“I had always said I would not play mothers because they never seem to have anything real to do,” she recalled. “But Annie Camden had humor along with the dramatic scenes.
“And the show came at a time when the family seemed to be breaking down,” she added. “I think much of the appeal both to me in choosing to do the role, and to the viewers in watching, is that this is a family that has remained together, that has weathered the storms together.” With the exception of Jessica Biel, who left the cast two seasons ago, the other four original Camden children remain, now as teenagers or young adults. They are portrayed by Barry Watson, who appears occasionally and also will direct episodes this season, David Gallagher, Beverley Mitchell and Mackenzie Rosman. Six years ago the Camden children expanded to seven when Annie gave birth to twins. The infants were played by the Brino quadruplets, but now only Nikolas and Lorenzo Brino act as the twins.
The stability behind the scenes has also been significant. Ms. Hampton has done other projects during the past decade, including creating “Fat Actress,” the short-lived Kirstie Alley series for Showtime. That she has remained tied to “7th Heaven” is something all concerned-especially Mr. Collins, Mr. Janollari and Ms. Hicks-point to as a reason the show has retained its audience appeal.
Executives at Paramount Domestic TV Distribution feel that “7th Heaven” has the potential of continuing its run long after original production ends.
“It has characters everyone can relate to no matter what age group,” said John Nogawski, president of the division, “and a healthy spiritual message.”
ABC Family arranged with Paramount Domestic TV in 2002 for a 10-year exclusive off-network run of the series after “7th Heaven” had a two-year run in broadcast syndication in 97 percent of the country, including the Tribune stations. This season, ABC Family will run the series at 6 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday. The series currently airs in 97 foreign territories, sold through Paramount International TV Distribution. Paramount Home Video has also released the first and second seasons as DVD collections.
Mr. Janollari sees no end to the series if the ratings remain stable, and Mr. Hampton as well as Ms. Hicks and Mr. Collins said they are game to continue after this season. With tongue in cheek, Mr. Collins said, “I think I at least have to get the twins, who are the youngest of the seven children, through college.”
Whether or not there will be an 11th season,
Ms. Hampton is satisfied with the results to date.
“I sat down to do a show the family could watch together,” she said, “and I think I’ve done that.”