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ABC Family could be great

Disney says it won’t cost more for consumers

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PASADENA, Calif. — The fact that cable's Family Channel is leaving the Fox Den for the Mouse House in a $5.3 billion megadeal obviously means a lot to the parties involved, but what does it mean to the average TV viewer?

The Walt Disney Company's purchase of the Fox Family Channel could end up being a good thing for those of us sitting at home, given that the Family Channel — both before and after it was purchased by Fox — has always been an underutilized resource. One that Disney could put to better use. If we're lucky.

And the head of the Mouse House assures us that it won't end up costing us more for our cable and satellite bills, which would definitely be nice.

The newly renamed ABC Family will feature some current programming, some original programming and some programming shared with soon-to-be-sister channels ABC, ESPN and Disney. In TV-speak, there's going to be a lot of "re-purposing" — placing programs on more than one channel. Expect to see a number of ABC series get a second run on ABC Family.

Disney President and COO Robert Iger said that the new ABC Family's relationship with the broadcast network will go far beyond current deals, such as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" airing on NBC and USA.

"In this case, ABC Family will be thoroughly compatible with the ABC television network, and we will not be limited to just one type of program genre or one program," Iger said. "We have huge flexibility basically across the ABC program schedule."

ABC made a deal with its affiliates that allows the network to "re-purpose" on cable up to 25 percent of the entertainment programming on the broadcast network. That amounts to 4 1/2 hours a week, and ABC already places one hour ("Once and Again") on Lifetime, so ABC Family could have no more than 3 1/2 hours of "re-purposed" ABC programming per week.

But that's just prime time.

"We have additional rights for news, other daytime programming and sports, as well as specials and movies," Iger said. "So there's substantial flexibility and ample opportunity in terms of using the ABC programs on ABC Family."

Among the sharing under consideration are rebroadcasts of "Nightline," expansion of ABC newsmagazines, an extension of "Good Morning America" and various sitcoms and dramas. Disney sees all this as a way to bring more viewers to its shows.

There's also no word on what shows from the current Fox Family lineup might remain. Disney acquired the Saban library in the deal — Saban, which owned 50 percent of Fox Family, is best known for producing "Power Rangers," which doesn't seem like a great fit in the Disney family.

"We have to take a look at it," Iger said. "I think there's lots that can air. There are also other opportunities to move that program over to other distribution platforms."

In other words, Disney could sell the rights to "Power Rangers" to another channel or channels.

Parts of the deal make perfect sense. Fox Family has been airing two major-league baseball games in prime time every week, but the telecasts have gone largely unnoticed.

"The intention for us would be to brand baseball on (ABC) Family as ESPN — to have it produced by ESPN and . . . marketed on the ESPN platforms," Iger said.

On the other hand, continuing telecasts of televangelist Pat Robertson's "700 Club" seem an odd fit indeed. Disney inherited the program from Fox, which bought the Family Channel from Robertson.

"We have no intention of changing the arrangement now," Eisner said. "That doesn't mean that it can't change down the road."

Eisner said he anticipated no additional cost to consumers resulting from this deal, but he did say, "An additional nickel or something like that for a cable service in a $40 (monthly) bill is really not the problem," Eisner said. "We have no control over what a cable company charges the consumer."

"There also isn't that much family programming available these days," Iger said. "And, in fact, there's been a fair amount of criticism about the lack of programming that is suitable for entire families to watch. The intention here would be to offer more value to both cable operators, satellite providers and consumers by strengthening the family programming that's currently on."

Exactly what form this will take remains to be seen. As does exactly how ABC Family will be "branded."

"Disney has a certain kind of family audience," Eisner said. "I like to think Disney is kind of silly and funny and Mickey Mouse-like. . . . And ABC Family, I think, is a broader platform on which to present programming."

And how soon Fox Family becomes ABC Family is also up in the air right now.

"Well, certainly not before the deal closes, and then as soon after that as possible," Eisner said. "I would suspect sooner rather than later."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com