In the 1950s, all television was family-friendly. Flash forward 40 years, however, and TV had changed. Families had changed. Boundaries blurred, and many advertisers took exception to the rules—or the lack thereof.
Family-friendly television made a big comeback in the 1990s, after the Association of National Advertisers set about making their collective voices heard. Partly as a result of those efforts, there are now a number of shows both on network and cable that appeal to families, including a surprising number of animated programs have parents watching alongside their children.
Rick Rodriguez, president and general manager of Qubo, said the 24-hour cable channel, which also has blocks of programming on NBC, Ion Television and Telemundo, “consciously set out to be family-friendly. We don’t have any ‘Kids rule, parents drool’ slogans. The family relationships tend to be positively portrayed, and there’s no bickering like there is in so many shows.
“Our research shows that for every child watching, there are two adults watching at any given time,” Mr. Rodriguez said, adding that “being adjacent to the ‘Today’ show on NBC on Saturdays” was a plus for keeping adult viewers tuned in.
Disney Channel already leads the pack in viewing for girls 6-14 with “Hannah Montana,” and scored huge numbers with both “High School Musical” TV movies.
In 2009, the network will rebrand its six Toon Disney channels and 19 Jetix channels as Disney XD in the U.S., with live-action programming and animation geared toward boys 6-14. Toon Disney’s top animated hit, “Phineas and Ferb,” which ranks fourth among boys 6-11 and third among boys 6-14 for prime-time animated series, is expected to continue its appeal on the new channels.
Disney XD also will launch an original comedy shot in documentary style about best friends who set out to become world-famous skateboarders, tentatively titled “Mongoose & Luther”; and “Aaron Stone,” a single-camera adventure series about a teenager who becomes the real-life version of an online game’s crime-fighting character.
Nancy Kanter, senior VP of Playhouse Disney Worldwide, said the current Playhouse Disney slate, while designed for 2- to 6-year-olds, is finding that older brothers and sisters “don’t mind watching,” particularly with shows like “Handy Manny” or “Imagination Movers.”
“Handy Manny,” which ranks as the No. 2 Playhouse Disney series among kids 2-5 (behind only “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse”), stars Wilmer Valderrama (“That ’70s Show”) as the voice of the outgoing handyman who solves problems in the neighborhood.
The shows for preschool viewers “appeal to mom, dad, caregiver, who can sit and watch,” Ms. Kanter said. “Whether it’s good social skills or something academic, we’ve found a child viewer gets so much more out of the program if an adult is watching, too.
“At Disney, one of the benefits is having a group of characters that mom and dad grew up with. I watched Mickey Mouse when I was a kid, and although it’s a much different show now, it’s still good to bring that experience to your child,” she added.
Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channel, which offer entertainment for older school-age and adult viewers, are practically synonymous with family-friendly viewing.
“Everything we air is appropriate for everyone in the room,” said William J. Abbott, executive VP of ad sales for Hallmark. That propriety makes a difference to Hallmark’s top 25 advertisers, he said, pointing out that companies including Kraft, Unilever, Sears and Procter & Gamble have been advertising with Hallmark for years.
After the creation of the Family Friendly Forum, Mr. Abbott said, “Networks decided to refocus on their audiences. Things are more targeted now, more brand-focused.”
Hallmark will air its original movie “Accidental Friendship,” starring Chandra Wilson (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Kathleen Munroe (“Cold Case”), on Nov. 15, and “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” on Nov. 22.
Cartoon Network has made a point of targeting family viewers; the cable channel scored big with its cross-platform animated reality series “Total Drama Island,” which allows fans to play along with the story online. Those fans have created 2 million personal avatars, becoming virtual campers in the show’s Camp Wawanakwa and competing in virtual challenges that mirror the show’s storylines. One of those avatars will be animated into the series finale to air Dec. 11.
But it’s “Star Wars: Clone Wars” that excites Stuart Snyder, president and chief operating officer of Turner’s Young Adults and Kids Media. “When we started, one of our expectations was that this would be a family experience,” he said. “Now we’re getting e-mails from dads saying they sit down and watch ‘Star Wars’ with their sons, or with their families, as a unit.”
Since its Oct. 3 debut, ratings for “Clone Wars” have increased by 400% for persons 18-49, with an increase in tweens 12-17, up 133%, and tweens 9-14, up by 110%, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Cartoon Network also sees a large family audience for its Sunday night Flicks block, which showcases original animated specials and family-friendly movies.
Nick at Nite offers movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Charlotte’s Web” this month, along with family-friendly series like “iCarly” and the ubiquitous “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The network is a hub of multiplatforming, with games and a chat room at Nicktropolis, along with full-length videos and mash-ups sponsored by McDonald’s Happy Meal and others.
Pete Danielsen, executive VP of programming, said Nick at Nite’s acquisition of sitcom “George Lopez” in syndication has brought a ratings boom.
“It’s bringing families together across all age groups,” Mr. Danielsen said. “Kids are bringing their parents, parents are bringing their kids. At the core, ‘George Lopez’ is about the family.”
The award-winning comedy “Everybody Hates Chris” also will move to Nick in the fall of 2009, and Mr. Danielsen said he’s looking forward to Michael Eisner’s new clay-animation series “Glenn Martin, D.D.S.,” about a dentist who takes his family on a cross-country road trip. The stop-motion comedy is “laugh-out-loud funny,” Mr. Danielsen said, “and it’s done by the same people who did ‘Celebrity Death Match.’”
PBS always ranks high in family-friendly programming, and that includes preschool television. In a study conducted by Harris Interactive in 2007, PBS Kids received the highest quality score among children’s television brands among U.S. parents with kids ages 2-5.
Among the new family-friendly shows PBS Kids is offering this fall is the animated “Sid the Science Kid,” PBS’ first collaboration with the Jim Henson Co. since “Sesame Street.”
“It’s an ambitious vision to try to educate children all over America to appreciate science,” said Lisa Henson, Henson Co. co-chief executive.
“Children already ask, ‘How does this work? What does this do?’” she said, “and the show tries to address those questions with age-appropriate answers. We’re cheerleaders for science. We want kids to celebrate their own interest in science, and we want parents to be engaged in their children’s learning.”
She also noted the evolution that family television has made since the days of “Sesame Street.”
“There’s more than one network trying to do this,” she said. “Children have more and better choices than they’ve ever had on television.”