Family Friendly: Saccharine Shows Need Not Apply

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After the Family Friendly Programming Forum redefined what it means to be “family friendly” last year, it saw a rise in the number of networks participating in its development process and in the number of scripts making it through the pilot battlefield to become series.

Those increases are emblematic of a trend in family-friendly fare.

Networks say the term “family friendly” is broader than perceptions might suggest. It doesn’t mean sanitized content or pedantic morality. It doesn’t mean “Leave It to Beaver” redux. Parents can be divorced, single, together or dead. Families can grapple with issues like sex and drugs. The key to making such content family friendly is that the issues need to be dealt with responsibly, advertising and network executives said.

Family-friendly shows don’t have to be scripted, either. While “Joan of Arcadia” on CBS and “The Bernie Mac Show” on Fox have received Family TV Awards from the forum, so have reality shows “American Idol” on Fox and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on ABC. None of those shows, however, received funding from the forum.

The forum’s goal is to encourage writers to develop family-friendly scripts by providing seed money for certain scripts that networks and writers submit for review. But the forum is not part of the creative process at all, said Dawn Jacobs, co-chair of the forum and VP of advertising at Johnson & Johnson. “We are not involved in the creative development,” she said.

What the forum has done is allowed The WB, for instance, to take more stabs at developing family-friendly programming, said Garth Ancier, chairman of the network. It allows a network to buy more scripts than it otherwise would have, he said, “As broadcasters you are trying to reach a broad audience and you want those shows to reflect what the country looks like.” There’s reason to believe audiences like such content. “7th Heaven” is a family-centric show and is The WB’s highest-rated program.

The forum was founded in 1998 and includes about 40 advertisers, representing about 30 percent of TV ad spending, that are members of the Association of National Advertisers. They include FedEx, General Mills, Pfizer and Sprint. The goal is to help fund programs that provide options for families to watch together between 8 and 10 p.m. Ms. Jacobs explained that the definition of “family friendly” has evolved since the forum started. At last year’s fall symposium the group more clearly defined what “family friendly” meant.

“What everybody thought was … it means Ward and June Cleaver, traditional stereotype programs, all very homogenous,” she said. “That’s not going to attract and excite viewers. What we clearly mean by family-friendly programming today is good quality TV. It’s programming that still has a cross-generation appeal and is appropriate for families to view together. We’d like for it to be uplifting, minimize issues of language, violence or sex, but if they are in the programming we support, there is a responsible resolution to these issues. Diversity is very important to us and [programming] has to depict real-life situations or problems.”

The forum’s new guidelines have had a positive impact in their first year, Ms. Jacobs said. All the broadcast networks participated in the development process for the first time this year, including new entrants Fox and UPN. In total, 60 scripts were submitted, and four shows funded by the forum have made it to series this year for the coming season, the highest number ever. They are “Related” on The WB, “Commander-in-Chief” on ABC, “Everybody Hates Chris” on UPN and the CBS midseason replacement series “Old Christine.”

Even if a show isn’t funded by the forum, it can still be considered family friendly, though the forum doesn’t offer a seal of approval or ratings guide for shows, Ms. Jacobs said.

“7th Heaven” was not funded by the forum, since it was greenlighted 10 years ago, before the forum came into existence. Nevertheless, it’s generally considered representative of family-friendly fare.

The programming isn’t disinfected before air. One of “7th Heaven’s” characters, Simon Camden, had premarital sex while in college last season. The show has evolved in a decade, said Brenda Hampton, the show’s creator. “Simon started in episode one just wanting a dog. Now in the 10th season he’s dealing with a complicated relationship with a fianc%E9;e he shouldn’t be engaged to, and they’re having sex. As the kids have grown up, the characters have become more complex,” she said.

Other WB shows were initially funded by the forum, like the group’s poster child “Gilmore Girls” and upcoming show “Related.” Mr. Ancier said the network works closely with the forum because family fare tees up with The WB brand, which of all broadcast networks is probably the most focused on delivering shows families can watch together.

While writers sometimes balk at the idea that a group of advertisers wants to fund certain scripts for fear of censorship, that doesn’t happen, Mr. Ancier said. “What [writers] have found is Family Friendly members have been supportive of them taking risks and doing episodes that are more controversial than you might think, more provocative, dealing with teenage sexuality, different kinds of relationships,” he said.

In addition to the scripted fare, Ms. Jacobs said, a number of top-rated reality programs are considered family friendly, including Fox’s “American Idol” and CBS’s “Survivor” and “Amazing Race.”

When Fox drew 30.28 million viewers for last season’s two-hour final “American Idol” showdown May 25, those viewers ran the gamut from preschoolers to adults. One of the reasons the show is such a top draw is that families watch together. In May the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of the show occupied the top two spots for co-viewing for kids 2 to 11 watching with an adult and for teens 12 to 17 watching with an adult, according to Nielsen.

“‘American Idol’ has a built-in discussion point and interactivity to it, so everyone can play along and have an opinion,” said Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming at Fox. “If you look at the music they sing, it appeals to people of all generations. … Embedded in the show is an uplifting message: Anybody can be successful through hard work, focus and talent. But the show’s not saccharine.”

Shows that reach across generations are going to do better because they can draw a bigger number than those whose mission is to attract younger audiences, said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “If you get a show that targets teens and parents, that’s great,” he said, adding that “American Idol” does that because everyone has an opinion on who should win, making it not just TV but a family event.

While broadcast networks are more likely to develop family-friendly content because it is part of their mission to be broad-based, some cable networks are also focused on family fare, but in different ways.

ABC Family, Hallmark and Disney Channel are in that camp. ABC Family targets the 18 to 49 demo with content about today’s families that is relevant and contemporary, said Paul Lee, president of ABC Family. Though it’s an adult-targeted network, all the content that runs in the early-evening hours would be appropriate for children to see, he said.

The one time the network purposely aims to attract families is during its 25 Days of Christmas event, when Santa Claus movies and animated Christmas films that reach across generations are shown.

“We are not looking for sweet, happy traditional families. The lead [character] in [the new original series] ‘Wildfire’ comes out of a penitentiary and really has to struggle with the right decisions,” Mr. Lee said. “We are out there to reclaim the word ‘family’ … but we are not focused on making shows that 4-year-olds and 60-year-olds can watch together.”

Nor is Hallmark Channel. “We don’t start out philosophically thinking we are a channel for the whole family,” said David Kenin, executive VP of programming at the networ
k. The network’s shows are for adults, but they are shows that should be comfortable for anyone watching, he said.

“If your oldest aunt or uncle came into the room, you wouldn’t need to hold the remote the whole time. We are safe. We don’t need to challenge the mores of American audiences with the kind of material we may like ourselves or choose ourselves. We are serving the brand,” he said.

Disney Channel, on the other hand, is kid-driven but family-inclusive. “I don’t believe you can drive everything at the same time,” said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide. Even though the channel’s movies, for instance, are about kids, they also feature moms and dads, and the parents aren’t portrayed as imbeciles, he said.

“I define family friendly as having a relevancy for families with topics or subject matter that is interesting and inclusive to families. Parents are divorced, passed away, interracial [or heads of] blended families. There are kids with special needs.”