Families No Longer Watch Together

May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Is there really any such thing as family programming anymore?
In May of last year, ABC announced plans to broadcast “programming that an entire family of kids, teens and parents can watch together.” And earlier this year Federal Communications Commissioner Kevin Martin spoke up for the activists and politicians at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention on behalf of a new tier of “family-friendly shows that parents and children can enjoy together.”
As it turns out, today there are probably more organizations dedicated to keeping America’s television screens clear of smut and violence than there are programs predominantly watched by families.
But families simply don’t watch television together anymore. Which begs the question of what “family-friendly” programming is. One can guess that it refers either to programs that appeal to all family members, whether or not they actually watch television at the same time in the same room, or to programs that avoid offending any particular group.
Back in the 1950s everybody watched I Love Lucy. People viewed television together because they only had one set. In the 1960s and early 1970s my family and I tended to watch the same programs at the same time as most other people in our neighborhood. After all, we had just one television and three channels to choose from.
Today Nielsen rates about 2,200 programs every week. Fewer than 25 of them attract more than 5 percent of the adult population. This is a challenge to those targeting whole families.
Changing population structures don’t help. Just 23 percent of America’s households conform to the traditional married-couple-with-children model; two-thirds of households do not count anyone under 18 as resident.
A special analysis of Nielsen Media Research data commissioned by OMD found that just 8 percent of all viewing minutes could be attributed to situations in which at least one adult and at least one person under 18 were watching at the same time.
The number is pretty consistent across different times of day. More than half of all viewing consists of people watching alone; the rest is mostly made up of people watching with others their own age. The programs with the greatest share of adults and children watching together tend to be aimed at younger children on cable networks such as Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel.
Even focusing exclusively on households with children, less than one-fifth (17 percent) of viewing minutes can be attributed to adults and children viewing together in any daypart.
So it is clear that the spread of television sets beyond the living room has played a big part in splitting up the traditional family viewing situations that were common in the 1950s and 1960s.
The looser definition of family-friendly programming-programs that appeal to all family members, even if those viewers don’t necessarily watch them together-is another way of asking whether programs attract a wide and diverse audience, either individually or over time.
But few regularly scheduled individual programs are watched by more than a handful of Americans. Neither do they attract a great deal of viewer loyalty, even in prime time.
One of the most popular programs of the 2001-02 season, Survivor: Africa, topped the list. But only about half of the show’s viewers watched three or more episodes out of every four.
So family-friendly seems to be more a description of programs that don’t offend key groups of people rather than those actually being watched by families sitting around a set together-an ideal rather than a reality.
Critics sometimes argue that organizations pushing for family-friendly programming prevent the networks from trying out edgier material. Vociferous letter campaigns to company CEOs and high-profile boycotts of their products tend to make advertisers cautious about offending these groups.
But it is also true that other studies-including research published in The Journal of Applied Psychology*-suggest sex and violence in programs cause viewers to be less attentive to ads. So maybe advertisers who avoid these shows are onto something.
The ultimate question, then, is where advertisers are going to put their money. On the one hand, they want to reach as many of the right people as they can with their advertising messages. Audience fragmentation is making this more and more difficult. Every year, broadcasters suffer more erosion in audiences, and advertisers must disperse their investments across a broader range of programs.
But they also want an environment free of controversy. The good news is that there is plenty of choice today-the FCC recently counted no fewer than 300 channels broadcasting to the nation.
Unfortunately, there is also plenty of controversy, which may mean, perversely, that the choices available to sensitive advertisers are not as broad as they might first appear.
But as long as the number of separate television sets available to view in individual households continues to grow, families are unlikely to watch television together much anymore. So the industry may need a new name for the kind of programming that will appeal both to younger audiences and to the advertisers who are keen to reach them. This author hasn’t come up with one.
Andrew Green is managing partner at media agency OMD, based in New York City.
*Violence and Sex Impair Memory for Television Ads. By Brad J. Bushmen and Angelica M. Bonacci. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2002, Vol. 87, No. 3, 557-564