Faith, Media & Culture

A lot is riding on Who is Simon Miller? The TV movie airing this Saturday night (Aug. 6) at 8:00 PM (ET) on NBC (trailer) offers an action-packed tale of a family caught up in international espionage — after mom (Robin Lively) and the kids learn that dad (Loren Dean) is a good-guy spy working abroad for the U.S. government.

The film, the seventh in the Walmart-P&G Family Movie Night series of specials is notable not just for being a backdoor pilot for a potential family-friendly prime-time adventure series but for the programming trend (and,yes, potential family-friendly network) its ratings success could encourage.

I, along with some other members of the media, had the opportunity to participate in a phone conference about the film with executive producer Brian Wells,  Ben Simon (Walmart’s Director of Brand Marketing) and Moms for Family TV co-founder Susan Fisher. The event was moderated by Lesley Burbridge of the Rogers & Cowan public relations firm.

Some highlights:

Tell us a little bit about the plot Who is Simon Miller?

Brian Wells (Executive Producer): Simon Miller is just basically the story kind of an average family like a lot of ours and like most families with teen kids they’ve got kind of their basic challenges they’re dealing with. Dad’s been traveling a lot on business and there’s kind of been a little bit of alienation between him and his family because he travels so much. And the kids are starting to act out maybe a few ways. The daughter’s gotten into a little bit of trouble in school, and the dad goes missing. He doesn’t show up back from a business trip. And in stumbling around his office, trying to find his itinerary, the family triggers a secret compartment that reveals this mystery about their dad and it ends up leading the mom and the two teenage kids on this kind of heart-pounding adventure across these different European cities trying to track down dad and save him from what’s become of him. So it’s a lot of fun, and then in the middle of this spy-thriller we have this, these, this journey that the family’s on about learning to trust each other and forgive each other.

Beyond the plot, what’s Simon Miller really about?

Wells: Well there was, I kind of touched on kind of the two main pieces of that, and it was the idea that in large-based research when Proctor and Walmart has talked to moms about what kind of things they’re trying to reinforce in their kids and what their challenges are, “trust” and “forgiveness” came up a lot. You know, this idea that when we’re particularly talking about family and we’re in a relationship with somebody, it’s a brother or sister, it’s a mom or dad, sometimes there could be things that happen that we feel immediately we jump to the worst conclusions…Whether it’s something little like that my sister left my video game on when she was supposed to turn it off, all the way to bigger things that maybe my brother, you know, didn’t come to my defense when I needed him in high school, or things like I felt like Dad didn’t stick up for me when he should have. There’s all these things just natural rhythm of life, break trust on each other. And so what do you do when trust has been broken and you do not jump to assuming the worst about somebody and then also the other piece is when it actually has been broken, this idea of forgiveness, and that no family relationships and when you get older in life your kids, whether it’s friendships, it’s work-relationships, whatever; None can exist without forgiveness. So those were kind of the two dials we’re trying to look at in this heart-pounding action adventure, “How can we touch on themes of trust and forgiveness.”

Why is Walmart and P&G in the family-movie business?

Ben Simon (Dir. of Marketing, Walmart): The family movie night initiative really, as Brian mentioned, kind of came out of the research that we did as two companies; Walmart and Proctor and Gamble. With large groups of moms across the United States, and what we found was, across the board, there was this resounding unmet need and concern with moms (for) more forms of family programming that the entire family could watch together. It’s really kind of a simple idea. Mom wanted to have programming the whole family could enjoy that she didn’t feel like she had to dive for the remote for. Whether there was inappropriate scene in the programming, or maybe even an ad. (In) some cases there would actually be ads that were more adult orientated…that were inappropriate for a family programming environment. So hearing all this concern and really doing some deep research with consumers, there are a lot of families that feel this way. And as a brand who, as you know, is committed to helping our consumers not only save money but live better, we thought that there could be a role that we could play — in addition to our partners like Proctor, (as well as) a couple of others, Pepsi, Microsoft, Sony. Pulling in a broad base, kind of a coalition of like-minded advertisers that actually try to provide some options that the whole family could enjoy (and) try to meet that need…
There was research that we did actually some of the major areas and themes that moms were saying there was not enough programming out there today that dealt with issues like this for example, honesty, integrity, the importance of hard work, the role of widows. We had a movie last year dealing with the issue of a mom whose husband dies as a marine in Fallujah and she was trying to raise two kids. Also a movie that deals with orphans and the importance of adoption.

Is the audience really there for this kind of programming?

Simon: Ah, yes it is…We have the research that we’ve done and we actually have our own data points in the movies that we’ve done thus far and the success that we’ve had, and so I think that there’s the research, and there’s also the actual real in-market results, and we would love to continue to make this case back to the media world, media and entertainment world, that there is a large audience out there for family programming that’s of high quality, that the whole family can enjoy. And the higher we drive the ratings, and more consistent we are in delivering a successful movie and entertainment experience for families across this country, the more that message to take root within the entertainment community, that, hey, there are advertisers out here doing something, it seems to be working (and) we should actually start to make more forms of family programming that the whole family can enjoy as well…And we hope that, that catalytic effect of our efforts will ultimately lead to hundreds of hours, thousands of hours of more family programming in the marketplace on an annual basis.

Wells: One thing I would say is that there are a lot of people within the power corridors in Hollywood who want to see this kind of thing as well…NBC has been a great partner in this, that want to see this kind of thing happen…(but) it’s got to make business sense…for the network, for Walmart, for P&G. And it makes business sense when people show-up and watch…There is this big, fat, giant experiment going on right now through Family Movie Night with the networks…are all watching this to say “Boy, do families really show up for this kind of content or not?”

Susan Fisher (Co-founder of Moms for Family TV): I am mom of three small girls and I just want to applaud what P&G and Walmart are doing. Two big huge companies who could be doing a lot with their resources and they have chosen to invest in families…and I just really applaud that, and as far as Family Movie Night goes, I love these movies and I’m so excited to be a part of the team that helps spread the word and generate awareness among families that changes are being made. Better quality television for families is on the rise and, hopefully, more of it will come…I personally love TV and I grew up watching TV with my family in the 70’s and 80’s. And, you know, on Monday night we watched Little House on the Prairie, on Thursday nights we watched The Cosby Show…They were great quality family gathering moments, you know, we laughed together, we cried together…You know I realize as a parent that a lot’s changed in the family hour…That’s why I’m so excited to be a part of the Family Movie Night team and that’s why we’ve started a group called Moms for Family TV — trying to sort of raise the flag and get a rallying cry and generate awareness for families out there that, like I said, good-better quality family television is being produced in the form of Family Movie Night. These are great movies the whole family can gather around and we need to help spread the word. And all the data shows is that this is what families are looking for. 

Wells: Susan, I think that’s great and I love to hear you speak as a mom there because one of the things we’ve found in this as well, which has been really encouraging, is the type of cast that we tend to have been drawing to these movies and to hear how a lot of them are kind of doing this not only because they believe in the story and they think it’s a great story, and they think it’s a great career opportunity but also because a lot of our cast tends to be at the age where they have kids, that they’re starting to look for these kind of viewing opportunities. It reminds me a little bit of, you know, when kind of the whole animation resurgence happened with Pixar (and) Disney…A lot of A-list talent started lending their voices to these movies and one of the common threads where they tended to be parents where they had small kids they wanted to be part of something that their kids could watch. We’re seeing kind of a similar dynamic in these movies…For instance Robyn Lively who stars as Meredith in “Who is Simon Miller?” who is just an absolutely fantastic actress and one that maybe people know in the past from Chicago Hope, or other things…She’s a mom of three small kids and…one of the reasons she’s doing this is (because) this is the kind show that she would love to be able to (watch as) a shared viewing experience for her family.

Speaking of Robin Lively, can you tell us more about the cast?

Wells: I mentioned Robyn Lively who plays the mom, MeredithAbsolutely fantastic, and then her husband, Simon who goes missing and is kind of the whole focus of this frantic search throughout Europe. A lot of people might know Loren Dean from, if you’re a movie fan, “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith, Gene Hackman, he had a recurring role on the Fox series Bones. So that’s the husband and wife in this and we found what was important in the casting of this was not only what could each one of them bring individually but what was going to be kind of their chemistry together and we really liked the way Loren and Robyn kind of worked together in this story and you really believe them as husband and wifeWe’ve got Skyler Day, who a lot of the kids will probably know from the series Gigantic on TeenNick…She plays Sarah the teen daughter, and then this newcomer Drew Koles who is absolutely wonderful as kind of the tech-geeky son in thisChristine Baranski, who…actually just received an Emmy nomination about a month ago for her role in The Good Wife…pops up in this actually as the person who (the family)…first believes is a co-worker of Simon’s.

Turning to the business of television, do you feel that the network reliance on a demographic system that favors young adults and edgy programming tends tends to work against family shows that may actually get higher overall rating but a lower percentage among the sought after demo?

Simon: I guess bias maybe is the word I’ll use, but it’s not maybe the right word…They’re building programs primarily with a younger adult target in mind–kind of that adult 18-24. Why? Well, because that is a very difficult target for advertisers; Difficult and highly valuable target for advertisers reach, that’s kind of like “Media 101”. So they build it for the adults 18-24 because that’s a very coveted target for advertisers and the thinking is that if you build it for them, you’ll get the older audiences at the same time. …And, as you know that’s not always the case…If you look at what’s on most television networks, particularly in prime-time today, both network and cable, you see that kind of media-decision playing out, where most of the shows that are out there are geared more towards adult, primarily younger targets than literally broader, family, kind of co-viewing. And we think that’s actually a miss because if you look at where all the demographics are...(the biggest) mass audience target that’s out there is really the 35 million moms (and) the 75 million kids, in the US. We think that family is the massive bulls-eye out there. And  our objective is also to not just have great programming that the whole family can love, but have a big broad audience enjoying and participate in the programming itself. And again, going back to some of the points made earlier, the more we can show the broad-based industry that there are a lot of adults, families, parents, and kids out there who want to watch this type of programming, we think will start to have kind of an impact on some of the current frameworks that are existing in the media and entertainment space. And we think that also we can change the definition of family programming. You know ‘family-friendly programming’ quote-unquote, tends to maybe have a bad definition in the mind of some of the people in Hollywood and in the media industry. We want to be able to kind of revision that definition by showing that family programming can be authentic, it can be exciting, in can deal with real issues (and) it can be done in a high-quality excellent way and it’s programming that we all can be proud of. And, at the same time, it can meet the need of families across the country so part of this too is kind of reshaping and redefining the definition of family and showing not only does it draw a big audience but it can be excellent. 

Wells: While there’s a certain demographic that’s kind of the sweet-spot for what the networks are looking at, in the end what they care about is what their advertisers care about and their advertisers, in this case, are companies like Walmart and Proctor and Pepsi, and Con-Agra, and Sony, and others who…know their core target is that mom and the spending power that she has. So, as long as we’re doing things in a creatively-engaging way that’s meeting her needs, the rest will take care of itself.

Is care taken to ensure that ads running on Family Movie Night are, in fact, family appropriate?

Wells: We can’t control the individual local ads that are bought…but the rest of them, all the national ads, they all run through us, and…they’re appropriate for the entire family but they’ve brought a real ingenuity and creativity to the ads as well…Some of our highest feedback that we get from these family movie nights is how much people enjoy the ads.

Simon: What we’ve tried to do is create kind of an oasis for the whole family where the whole end-to-end experience of the programming and the advertising, the commercialization of the time within the movie, is actually tuned to be appropriate for the whole family.

With all this advertiser support, what are the chances that Family Movie Night will go weekly — or that a full-fledged family-oriented network will develop?

Simon: The intent is to create a platform to serve moms and families…where every week there’s a new installment of something for the whole family, whether it’s a movie, whether it’s series, whether it’s reality idea, that’s kind of where we’re working towards. Now, it’s going to take a little bit of time…to kind of get that machinery up and running but that’s the intent to create a night of the week that families can trust and know that whatever it is, put the remote down, bring the family together, and have a great night. I think that things like TGIF and what the Wonderful World of Disney…That’s the intent. And we’re working through plans to kind of bring that to scale…The more the ratings come in, the more success we have, the more confidence we feel in our ability to actually put increasingly more resources and support behind this.

In the short term, what’s coming up in the months ahead on Family Movie Night?

Wells: The September one is a really fun one…It’s the story of a guy who basically has had a lot of success in life but he’s gotten kind of fuzzy between the difference between looking like a good man and being a good man. He’s a professional football player. Things have been rather rocky since high school in his relationship with his parents. And something happens that forces him to return to his small home town and, in doing so, kind of has this crisis moment of life and realizes he needs to kind of air things out with his dad as well as deal with some of the ramifications of his football career and the toll that that’s taken on his body. So it’s a really fun one and it stars Ryan McPartlin who a lot of people may know from the NBC series Chuck. And then just an awesome, awesome role that Beau Bridges is in, playing his dad that will be a lot of fun and Bo just hit it out of the park with that. And then Catherine Hicks, who a lot of people know from 7th Heaven plays the mom in it. So, it’s a really good one. That will be happening September and then in December we’re just in kind of the final prep phase for one that will be airing in December. Can’t really talk a whole lot about that other than it’s going to be a really fun one for the whole family that’s going to involve video gaming. That’s going to be a lot of fun. So that’s what we’re going to be doing for the rest of this year and then you just kind of have to stay tuned for what’s going to happen in 2012.

I’ll have a review of Who is Simon Miller? tomorrow. Here’s a clue: I liked it.

Again, Simon Miller airs this Saturday night (Aug. 6) at 8:00 PM (ET) on NBC. View the trailer here.

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