Q&A: No One Style of ‘Family’ Viewing

Dec 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

As senior vice president in charge of Turner Entertainment Networks’ Content Creation Group, Michael Wright is keenly aware of the need for family-friendly programming in today’s television landscape. The executive responsible for all original programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies, including original series, limited series and specials, talked recently with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the state of family-friendly television and how Turner approaches family programming.
TelevisionWeek: How would you describe family-friendly television right now?
Michael Wright: I think the only way to define family-friendly television is programming that the family can watch together. But even within that answer there are qualifiers. What age is the family? What kind of family is it? Is it a conservative family? Is it a progressive family? I think there are a lot of qualifiers, but I think generally it’s television that the family can sit down and watch together. But that’s something that families don’t do nearly as much today as they did when I was growing up.
I have enormously fond memories of sitting with my family, my mom and dad and brothers and sisters and grandparents, watching television together. It was a very familial, fun event. And there were certain shows that we would always watch together. It was fascinating because there was Granddaddy’s show that he would turn on that we would watch. He was a real fan of all the procedurals in the 1970s, so we would all be watching “The F.B.I.” and the Quinn Martin shows. We loved them. They were, to a degree, family-friendly. There was nothing offensive about them. Also the Levinson-Link shows, like “Columbo.” They were fun and entertaining and very well-crafted. Today, as much as I enjoy certain procedurals, I don’t know that I would watch them with my kids.
TVWeek: One of TBS’ top shows is a procedural, “The Closer.” Would you consider that family-friendly?
Mr. Wright: For me, I think it’s a personal decision. I watch that show with my teenage children. I have no problem with my 17-year-old and 15-year-old watching it. But there have been certain episodes where I wondered if it was OK for my 12-year-old. That gets back to what kind of a family are we talking about. I will say that “The Closer” is a show that, in my opinion, does not rely that much on graphic violence or language or even content. Many of the episodes of “The Closer” are fine to watch with the family. They’re so classy in their storytelling. You can’t say enough good things about that show and the people who make it. There are certain episodes where it’s more of the subject matter that they’re dealing with that makes me take pause with my littler children, but I would have no problem watching it with my teenagers. I want them to watch it because it’s smart storytelling.
TVWeek: Your networks have some shows that are specifically family-friendly …
Mr. Wright: “The Librarian” is one. I’m so proud of that franchise. Dean Devlin and Noah Wyle and Bob Newhart have all done a beautiful job with that. Noah and Dean and I have all talked about the fact that we all have families and we relish the notion of sitting down and watching “The Librarian” with them. I have, in fact, watched that with my parents and my own children in the room. It was sort of a flashback for me of watching television with my family growing up, some of the big miniseries. “Roots” was absolutely a family event in my house. “Shogun” and “Centennial.” And one tough content show, but one we watched as a family, was “Holocaust.” As a kid in the suburbs, I knew of the Holocaust, but I didn’t have much knowledge of it really. That miniseries was enlightening.
TVWeek: Is the idea of family viewing at 8 o’clock a thing of the past?
Mr. Wright: I love the idea of the family hour. I’m a parent who really does enjoy watching television with my children. The ideal of an 8 o’clock hour is a great one, but the reality in a world with DVR usage, Internet usage and time-shifting, I don’t think I can protect an hour for that kind of entertainment for my children. I don’t know how to do that as a parent. Technology has changed that. What it does is that all of us as parents have to do a better job of being aware of what our kids are doing. Not to be Pollyanna about it, but we do. We all have to be keenly aware of what they’re watching, where are they, and helping to guide their decisions.
TVWeek: How has marketing via Web sites and downloads, DVDs and iPods changed your programming choices?
Mr. Wright: It’s not like when I grew up and there were rabbit ears on the television. I remember the first time we got a cable box. It was an event in my house. We went from eight channels to 13. At one time there was just one portal for entertainment communication to come into your home, which made it much more controllable from my parents’ perspective, and ideas like the family hour made sense. Today, in my house alone, there are 10 different ways a person can grab entertainment. I think we’re about a year away from having a chip embedded in your brain so you can download a movie to your cerebral cortex.
TVWeek: Westerns have always appealed to family viewers. Was “Into the West” conceived as a family-friendly project?
Mr. Wright: There were aspects of “Into the West” that were violent and dealt with some tough subject matter, but at the same time it was handled with such class and such grace that that was a show you could watch with maybe not younger members of your family, but the content of the show and the point of view was great. That particular take on the West, executive producer Steven Spielberg was very specific about wanting to do it authentically, an honest telling of the tale. Again, I watched that with my children. What was great was when my 13-year-old turned to me and was asking questions about that period of our history. She was admiring of some of these pioneers, but she was also asking hard questions about did that really happen. That was a good show to watch with family.
TVWeek: What about the TV movies you’ve been airing, shows like “Door to Door” and “The Wool Cap”?
Mr. Wright: It’s the “Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentation,” and you have to give them huge credit for everything we do with them. Their intention is to create programming that is family-friendly, but very contemporary and somewhat provocative. You can talk about “Door to Door” or “The Wool Cap” or “The Ron Clark Story” that we did just last year with Matthew Perry. They were much acclaimed and, equally importantly, were really shows you could watch with the family. We do a movie every year with Johnson & Johnson. They’re just good people, smart people, and one of their agendas with this annual show is to do something that is family-friendly.
TVWeek: What are the challenges in marketing this kind of programming in today’s competitive field?
Mr. Wright: In fairness, it doesn’t make up the majority of our programming schedule, but we can pick and choose those programs like “The Librarian” or the “Johnson & Johnson Spotlight,” or for that matter “The Bill Engvall Show,” and we can create a very targeted marketing campaign. We know going in for that show the number that we wanted to do, and in order to achieve that we need to make people aware that this is something to watch with your family. So it’s pretty straightforward for us. We know who the target audience is for them and I can’t say enough about the Turner marketing people. They know how to find the right audience and get the message out to them.
TVWeek: Was the situation comedy “The Bill Engvall Show” created specifically to be family-friendly?
Mr. Wright: When Bill and I met, we were in total agreement about what we wanted the show to be. Bill said without hesitation, “You know, I want to do a show that a family can watch together. I’m tired of television shows where the dad is an idiot, the mom and dad don’t get along and the kids are all smart alecks.” The challenge for us was to do a show where Dad really was an admirable guy—funny and kind of goofy, but an admirable guy who loves his wife, and the family really does love one another. How do you make that show without becoming so corny and sentimental that it’s dismissed by a number of audiences?
Interestingly, when the show came out, in all candor, some of the critics were pretty hard on it, and I thought, “I bet they only watched one episode.” I’m not the least defensive about it; the ratings speak for themselves. But I do think if people saw more episodes, they’d realize that it’s really smart writing and acting going on.
TVWeek: What made you choose Bill Engvall in particular?
Mr. Wright: I’ve been aware of the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, but—just my personal opinion—of the four of them, Bill’s always been my favorite. The first time I met him, I realized he’s not a Southern comedian. He’s a comedian who happens to have roots in the South. What I mean by that is that he’s really an everyman sort of comedian. His act, his routine, is not exclusive to the Southern life. It’s not the Southern blue-collar world—and by the way, all props to them, they were very successful. But as a programming initiative, in trying to craft a show, Bill was so clearly the one I wanted to work with because I think he’s not exclusive to a Southern audience. In fact, the ratings for his show have proven that out.
TVWeek: Was it planned that the dynamic of “The Bill Engvall Show” would be similar to “The Cosby Show”?
Mr. Wright: We decided, by design, to do something a little bit retro, a little bit old-fashioned, but not in the pejorative sense. We wanted to do a multicamera family comedy where the family likes each other. But all that being said, we’re very aware that the challenge of that is if you are going to do that show, you have a greater obligation to execute it in a way that’s still contemporary and honest, and I think we’ve done a great job with that.
As the season wore on, they got better and better at it. It was a huge success. If Bill could hear you say that, he would do back-flips down the hall. … He said, “There are still people today who have fond memories and are big fans of ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘Home Improvement’ and ‘Family Ties’ and ‘Eight Simple Rules.’” And it’s paradoxical, but it’s true, in the sense that if you’re in my job one of your things is to look at what’s not on. Anybody who’s in programming, what you ought to be doing is looking around and seeing what is not on right now. Where’s the opportunity for people who like a certain kind of show? The paradoxical part of it is that the family comedies have been a staple of television for 50 years, and yet they’re not on. If you look at the broadcast networks, you know they’re not there. I would challenge anybody to tell me where they are.
TVWeek: How successful has “The Bill Engvall Show” been?
Mr. Wright: It’s in the top five broadcasts for original comedies of all time on basic cable. You always do that huge number initially when you premiere, then you dip, and then it steadily built. I think it doubled its time period. It was a big performer for us. “The Bill Engvall Show” ranked as one of ad-supported cable’s top sitcoms, and TBS has ordered a second season of 10 episodes.
TVWeek: What about your new show “Frank TV”—is that for a family audience?
Mr. Wright: It’s a late-night show, and there are aspects of it that I probably wouldn’t watch with my youngest kids, but Frank Caliendo’s not a guy who relies on blue material or language or overt sexuality to get a laugh. That’s not who he is. So there may be some provocative moments in there, but I would absolutely watch “Frank TV” with my teenagers. It’s less about the use of specific language or sexuality. It’s more about the general spirit of Frank’s comedy.
Whether it’s Bill Engvall or Frank Caliendo or even our show “My Boys,” which is arguably the most adult of the shows we have on, what we have said to all the writers that we’re working with is in the spirit of programming shows that are not on, I’m a fan of comedy that is smart and contemporary and clever and all those things that have a heart beating in the center of it. So much of comedy in the last several years has been overly relying on sarcasm and snarkiness, even a sort of mean-spiritedness. Part of what we’re trying to do with audiences is to make it our obligation to be smart and fresh and contemporary, but do it without resorting to mean-spiritedness that seems to pervade a lot of other comedy right now. Frank’s not a mean-spirited comedian.
TVWeek: In terms of family-friendly TV, what about Turner Classic Movies?
Mr. Wright: Talk about family-friendly! We wish we could get more families to watch some of those movies together, because those are classics. What’s so sad is that children today just won’t watch if it’s black-and-white. It’s tragic. Every time I get my kids to watch one, they love it. I also think that it’s perfectly wonderful and appropriate to have television shows that are not for your kids. I’m a big believer in a broad spectrum of television programming. I think to omit any one of these areas is a mistake. There’s room for all audiences.
TVWeek: Looking ahead, what does Turner plan to do with regard to family television fare in the near future?
Mr. Wright: As I said, “The Bill Engvall Show” will be coming back. We’re so proud of this show and the craft behind it. We talked about “The Closer,” which is terrific. Johnson & Johnson will continue their films. I believe they’ll continue to achieve a level of excellence, and that’s shocking for how brief a time that franchise has been around in production, but more power to them. We have a third “The Librarian” in development. We’re phasing out of miniseries because we’ve become so much more into our series business. We’re doing well with it. We’re not saying never, but we have no immediate plans to do any miniseries.
Family-Friendly TV


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