Family Viewing Alive, If Not Thriving

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Here’s a radical idea: To get viewers back to watching more broadcast prime-time TV, the networks need to program more shows that appeal to the entire family.
Between 1985 and 2000 the percentage of homes with three or more television sets more than doubled, going from 19 percent to 41 percent-where it stands today. The industry started believing that family members no longer watched television together. To keep up with multiple televisions per household and more effectively compete with cable, it was felt that programs needed to appeal to narrower audiences.
It may have started, or at least accelerated, with the success of Friends in 1994. Always copying what works, the networks began trotting out a series of more adult-oriented sitcoms. The following year, ABC canceled Full House, citing NBC’s success, and the idea that families no longer watch television together.
Meanwhile, the erosion of network viewing has continued almost unabated. Thus in reality, ironically, the trend toward less family fare has actually contributed to network erosion. Consider the following:
While the average household has about 2.5 television sets, and 40 percent have three or more, during the average minute in prime time more 80 percent of all households have just one television set turned on (or multiple sets tuned to the same channel). In other words, people have multiple TVs for convenience.
Families want to spend more time together, not less (particularly post-9/11). If one family member is watching something that doesn’t appeal to others, everyone doesn’t scurry off to other rooms to watch television-they often don’t watch anything (or remain in the room but don’t consider themselves viewers, so wouldn’t log in if they were in Nielsen’s sample).
Overall television usage in fourth quarter 2002 was virtually the same as in fourth quarter 1992. But usage for many specific age groups was down significantly-even among kids, which, considering the many more nightly viewing options on cable, one might find surprising (especially since so many kids have TVs in their rooms). So families probably tend not to split up every night to watch different programs.
Just as the networks started programming more specifically to the young-adult audience, that very group started drifting away from television.
The press tends to focus on shows it thinks are sexy and edgy, and ask why the networks can’t program more cable-type shows. But copying cable programming often results in cablelike ratings. Though The Sopranos is a major hit on HBO, most cable programs generate tiny ratings compared with what a broadcast network needs. They may generate a lot of press and buzz, but most get relatively small ratings.
While The Sopranos is an exception, aside from the fact that it’s an extremely well-crafted show and only has 13 or so episodes a season, it is successful primarily because it’s on HBO. And as much as it may irk the networks, it does not have the same content restrictions. So no matter how much a network series might be touted as Sopranos-like, it simply can’t rival the content of that show. And viewers notice the difference. Viewers simply have different expectations for a broadcast series than for one on a premium cable service. Not to mention that The Sopranos costs roughly $2 million per episode to produce, significantly more than a network series.
If you think about it, edgy is just another word for most-people-ain’t-gonna-watch-it. How many programs over the past 10 years that carried the terms edgy or pushing the envelope actually became successful on broadcast television (remember Action?)? In fact, there are only three-NYPD Blue, Ally McBeal and 24-with the latter only really hitting after getting American Idol for a lead-in.
Too often the term “family programming” is associated with kids programming. But good family fare doesn’t have to be geared specifically for kids (The Cosby Show and Family Ties come to mind). One reason Survivor and American Idol stand out among the reality genre, is that families can and do watch them together. Shows such as 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, American Dreams, Everwood, According to Jim, The Bernie Mac Show, and even a 10 p.m. show such as Judging Amy for the most part can be watched by the entire family. And that’s the key-not whether they are watched by the entire family, but whether they can be.
On average, family comedies and dramas are not recorded on VCRs at as high a rate as their more adult conterparts. Perhaps in a digital video recorder-centric world, more family programming makes sense as anouther way of offsetting the ease of recording and fast-forwarding.
There is a place for high-quality adult fare on broadcast TV. But there seems to be a need for more, not fewer, family programs, particularly pre-9:30 p.m. Then families might once again watch network TV together, and broadcast ratings might actually go up.
Mr. Sternberg is senior VP, director of audience analysis, for Magna Global USA, New York.