ION Chief Expanding Definition of ‘Wholesome’

Nov 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

ION Media Networks, the new name for Paxson Communications, has long been a prime destination for viewers seeking family-friendly television. The change in ownership has meant a broader definition of wholesome TV fare, as Brandon Burgess, president and CEO of ION, explains. Mr. Burgess recently spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the revamped network and the changes to come.

TelevisionWeek: Your network used to be Pax; now it’s ION Media Networks. Talk about the switch.

Brandon Burgess: We wanted to give the platform a new identity and indicate to everybody, both in the programming world as well as in the viewer world, that we’re basically relaunching in a certain regard from the standpoint of revitalizing our programming and giving ourselves a slightly broader identity then we’ve had in the past. That occurred earlier this year when the corporate name changed.

The on-air identity has not changed yet. We’re still branded `I,’ which the company adopted as its on-air brand some time ago, because that originally stood for independent programming. We’re probably going to revamp our on-air identity the beginning of next year also to go to a broader definition of independent family TV.

TVWeek: In what ways does ION deliver family-friendly television?

Mr. Burgess: We have a long history of putting on good-quality, non-controversial, wholesome family television and we have never abandoned that. We would like to expand that to some extent. I think what we would like to do is move from a one-size-fits-everybody-in-the-family to a more contemporary definition of having something on-air in different dayparts for everyone in the family. Not necessarily the same demographic 24 hours a day. Not necessarily the same brand and topic 24 hours a day. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.

TVWeek: How did qubo, the children’s programming block, come about for your network?

Mr. Burgess: Qubo is a good place to start because it’s a great example of what we’re thinking about. We’re thinking of being family-friendly in a multigenerational way. It doesn’t mean we’re only targeting women 25 to 48 all day long, and we’re not targeting men all day long either. We want to serve multiple demographics within the family-friendly context, ranging all the way from the very young demographic with qubo, which appeals to the 2 to 11 demographic, preschoolers and young children. They’re at one end of the spectrum of the family-friendly approach, and then you may see another product that we recently launched called Ihealth, which by definition skews older and is slightly female-oriented. It’s at the other end of the demographic spectrum.

TVWeek: What kind of programs do you have on Ihealth? Is it all about family health?

Mr. Burgess: It’s very much about family health. There are how-to shows with an obvious focus on the most prevalent conditions in the nation. Those are things like high blood pressure, vascular diseases, obesity, diet and diabetes. That programming tends to skew older, but there’s a very deep following for that kind of information. It’s really consumer-oriented health information.

TVWeek: Your schedule also has many old-time family favorites, such as “Green Acres,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Mama’s Family” and the like.

Mr. Burgess: That’s the 25 to 54 demographic, a pretty broad audience. “Green Acres” and “Mama’s Family” and “Diagnosis Murder” and “Charlie’s Angels” are classic TV in a sense. In the next 18 months, you’ll see us go slightly younger in our programming.

TVWeek: How will you draw younger family viewers?

Mr. Burgess: We signed a deal with RHI [Robert Halmi International] Entertainment. They’ll be ION’s exclusive television programming supplier on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for an initial two-year period beginning July 1, 2007. Up until recently, they had the Hallmark Channel as their home.

RHI has 5,000 hours of family programming-high-quality family-friendly content-and our anticipation is that those shows will skew a little bit younger just because you have more contemporary production values, more contemporary productions overall.

Prime time is going to be content that has the highest common denominator within the family. Things like qubo and Ihealth won’t run in prime time. Qubo, for instance, we run in the afternoons on Fridays. Our goal is to have a multidaypart strategy. When you couple that with the fact that we have such a broad reach-93 million homes-that gives us a good platform to launch and promote these different dayparts.

TVWeek: What happened to your religious-based programming?

Mr. Burgess: Well, we were never as religious as people thought. I realize there was a big undercurrent, and some of that has to do with the shows we aired. One of the signature shows for us when we started was “Touched by an Angel.” So the network had developed this connotation, but I think we’re going to end up being a relatively secular service because I think if you go too far into the religious arena you may not make yourself as open to a broader viewer base as I think we can.

I have no issue with large parts of prime time staying with a noncontroversial, family-oriented positioning. I think that will be consistent with our past. One of the things that’s attractive about the Halmi relationship is that it fits hand in glove with our demographic. That said, it’s not inconceivable that you might see us someday get into something in late-night where we could do something edgier and more contemporary.

Again, every U.S. family these days has different demographics. As long as you keep the integrity of the dayparts intact … . We’re trying to become more mainstream and not get too boxed in to any one demographic, including a religious demographic.

TVWeek: How many hours are you currently programming?

Mr. Burgess: Our focus is 6 to 11 [p.m.], and our aspiration is to do programming 24 hours a day. Paxson, in its early days, spent a lot of money on original programming that was expensive, and it didn’t quite get the full ratings potential people were hoping for. The reason was partly because the focus was too narrow.

In recent years, before my arrival, the company had discontinued production and had repurposed a lot of the dayparts to paid programming. I’d like to see us reverse that over time. We can’t do it immediately, but my hope is to really use the platform for entertainment and informational programming where we get an audience base that I think will be able to allow us to achieve higher revenues than we do now with the infomercials. But that can’t happen overnight. I think the first phase of this is to revitalize 6 to 11.

TVWeek: What original programming have you planned?

Mr. Burgess: We’re going to do a lot of it through partners. The RHI deal includes some original programming that they will produce for us. A lot of that will be miniseries and movies and maybe some specials. That’s their forte.

They may try something different with us because now they will have the advantage of three nights of prime time to work with, so maybe they’ll go into serialized production. That’s what I would like to see. It’s a large deal, so we can try many different things.

We’re also looking at some things for late-night and that will be somewhat uncharacteristic for us. We haven’t announced those yet. But it goes back to the point that we want to be multigenerational family fare, but maybe not quite as wholesome as something like “Gulliver’s Travels.”

I think in late-night we could try some things which are a little off the beaten track under the theory that you get a different demographic in late-night.