Just about every parent has had this unsettling moment: Your kids are watching brightly colored creatures dancing around pastel-colored fields, and they're mesmerized. It's television so sugary sweet an adult can't stand it.
Far worse is the truly uneasy feeling parents get when kids are exposed to gruesome acts of violence or relatively explicit sexual acts, neither of which is in short supply on TV.
But while those shows get the headlines and angry denunciations by politicians, quietly there's been an explosion of family-friendly programming.
“I've been in the family genre for about 20 years and I can truly say that as television has gotten edgier, advertisers' appetite for family programming has become more significant,” observes Bill Abbott, executive VP of ad sales at Hallmark Channel, which is among the most active channels pushing its family orientation.
In the recent past, family-friendly programming generally meant a handful of scripted shows on network TV like the old CW hit 7th Heaven that parents could stomach and that teenagers and kids genuinely liked.
Family-friendly shows now include many reality hits on network TV like Fox's American Idol and NBC's American Gladiators, which are racking up big ratings among families with content that's devoid of heavy-handed preaching or, for that matter, anything that's overtly family-friendly. Gladiators fight contestants but it's a game.
Cable networks lean heavy on family programming. The most obvious family smash was Disney Channel's enormously successful movie franchise High School Musical and its continuing success with sitcom Hannah Montana. But there are also networks like Hallmark Channel, TV Land, Nick at Nite and others that have become top-rated networks with lineups filled with content that wouldn't make a nun blush.
“If you look at today's primetime [broadcast] lineup, with the possible exception of Everybody Hates Chris, there isn't a whole lot in terms of scripted family-friendly shows,” says Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at watchdog group Parents Television Council. “Instead, what we've found ourselves doing in the past few years is recommending reality shows. That's pretty much all there is out there until you bring cable into the equation.”
TV networks are responding to parents, who have been saying for years that there isn't enough programming that families can enjoy together. But, for the networks, family-friendly programming is also good business. Many advertisers want their products airing in a wholesome environment—or feel pressured by watchdog groups to put their ad dollars there.
“There's a hunger among families for shows that kids like and parents feel comfortable with,” says James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, which, like PTC, rates TV shows and other media for their appropriateness for families. “High School Musical is a great example of that. Kids love it and parents are happy their kids are watching it. A lot of TV executives are parents, too, so they understand there's a need for better programming.”
That's not to say the TV landscape is pristine. Parents still need to do a bit of dancing around the TV dial to find family-friendly programming. But it's there, perhaps with the greatest number of these programs and networks than ever before.
Some cable networks with less obvious names than ABC Family are also seeking the same audience. The ad-supported Gospel Music Channel, which will soon be added to DirecTV systems (which will bring its subscription base to nearly 40 million homes) serves as a wholesome alternative to young-skewing networks like MTV.
“We use the 8-year-old rule,” says Charles Humbard, founder and president of Gospel, which, despite its title, goes beyond gospel to other types of entertainment. “If an 8-year-old is in the room, would it be appropriate for them to watch? On our channel, whether it's commercial programming, movie trailers or programs, it is appropriate, including the artists because young people view them as role models.” A promo reel Gospel's vice chairman Brad Siegel is taking around to advertisers as it begins its upfront presentation touts a new series featuring standup comics whose jokes, the announcer intones, “don't end with four-letter words.”
And there's plenty of evidence to suggest families want family-friendly programming.
More than 80% of viewers want more programs they can watch as a family, according to a study conducted by research firm Yankelovich for Hallmark Channel. Yankelovich interviewed 1,000 adults by phone and released its findings last spring.
Among parents of kids under 18 years old, 87% want more programming appropriate for everyone in the family.
At the same time, parents say there has been an explosion of inappropriate content for kids, teenagers and families. Among people surveyed by Yankelovich, 88% say there has been a huge increase in the amount of televised sex and violence over the past five years.
In a separate study, the PTC reports that, by its measure, violence on network TV has been soaring. Based on its measures in 1998 and 2006, violent acts in primetime are depicted 45% more often in the 8 p.m. hour than in 1998. Violent acts are depicted 92% more at 9 p.m. and 167% more at 10 p.m. Networks routinely dispute the numbers and methodology.
There's even a bigger dispute about how much family-friendly programming is necessary. In an essay he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2006, then-NBC Chairman Bob Wright, quoting statistics gleaned from the U.S. Census, contended that two-thirds of the nation's 112.8 million TV households do not even have children under 18 living there.
Many kids and teenagers are watching TV with little supervision. Just over half the 8-18-year-olds surveyed by Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005 said there are no rules regarding watching TV in their homes.
People 8-18 who have a TV set in their bedroom watch about 3½ hours of TV each day, according to Kaiser. Kids without a TV in their bedroom watch only two hours.
Young people are also watching a good deal of TV in dayparts not particularly family-friendly, including late night, according to Nielsen. Among kids 2-11, an average 26% watched primetime in January, 11% watched late-night TV and more than 5% watched after 1 a.m. The numbers are higher among teens, with 29% watching primetime, 18% watching late night and 9% watching past 1 a.m.
Kids and teenagers are also watching programs that few people would consider family-friendly, including shows like Fox's Family Guy, according to PTC statistics backed up by Nielsen ratings. Several less-than-family-friendly programs rank among those watched most often by parents and kids together, but to a lesser degree than family-friendly shows.
“You also have, strangely, shows like House, Grey's Anatomy and CSI, which makes us wonder who these kids are that are watching these shows,” says PTC's Henson. “But these are closer to the bottom of the list. Based on Nielsen data, there's evidence that there's a market for family-friendly shows and obviously every time American Idol airs, it proves families are interested in watching TV together.”
There are many parents who say they want family-friendly programming who follow through and actually watch it, often together as a family in front of one TV set—sort of the classic image of family viewing.
On broadcast TV, for example, shows like NBC's American Gladiators, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Fox's American Idol, which are decent for family viewing according to watchdog groups like PTC and Common Sense Media, have among the highest levels of families watching together, or co-viewing.
About 22% of adults 25-54 this season watch Gladiators with kids 2-17 in the room, according to an NBC analysis of Nielsen ratings. Other top shows for family viewing include ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos (22%), Extreme Makeover (20%), Idol (19%) and Fox game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (18%).
Cable networks also have a good deal of co-viewing, including Nickelodeon, which ranks No. 1 on this measure. In 2007, 27% of adults 18-49 watched the network with kids 2-5, up from 19% in 2001.
“Shows and events hit on many dimensions, meaning adults love it for certain content,” says Pete Danielsen, executive VP of programming at Nickelodeon. “Kids love it on a completely different level.”
Family-friendly cable networks are generally posting dramatic increases in viewing.
Nick at Nite in February, for instance, was up 35% from February 2007 in total viewers, ranking No. 6 among all networks with an average 1.6 million people in primetime. Hallmark was up 22%, ranking No. 10 with 1.3 million viewers. ABC Family was No. 19, up 6%, to 1.1 million. Toon Disney was up 19%, to 273,000 viewers, ranking No. 45. Only a few family-friendly networks like TV Land posted declines.
Most of the family-friendly networks often get feedback from their viewers in focus groups, in surveys and online. And what they hear is that parents and kids enjoy watching TV together, notably squeaky-clean sitcoms of the past like Nick at Nite's Cosby Show and even animated shows like Nickelodeon's Fairly OddParents.
“Television, movies and videogames are a business,” says Common Sense Media's Steyer. “They're going to respond to the marketplace. But the FCC, through some highly publicized actions like the Janet Jackson episode, have also had an impact,” he says of the singer's infamous breast-baring moment during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.
The explosion of family-friendly programming is a good thing for advertisers like those in the Association of National Advertisers' Family Friendly Programming Forum. This group of about 40 advertisers led by Procter & Gamble was formed in part to ensure there are enough family-friendly programs on the air for advertisers looking for this content. FFPF, among other things, provides funding for family-friendly scripts like NBC's Chuck.
“We see it not only from the Family Friendly Programming Forum roster but also many other advertisers that are looking for an environment where they don't have to worry about content,” says Hallmark's Abbott.
More family-friendly programs means there are more rating points for advertisers to buy. And if it's plentiful, all the better since higher levels of inventory tend to keep costs down.
Family-friendly cable networks have seen a big boost in ad spending as advertisers increasingly look for this type of content. It's not simply about racking up rating points, says Kerry Hughes, senior VP of ad sales at Qubo, a kids' TV block that airs on NBC, Telemundo and ION Television.
“We have standards and practices for everything that we have on,” she says. “There's a halo effect for advertisers because they get to support this great pro-social programming.”
Last year, ad spending on most family-friendly outlets outpaced the average for all cable networks, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Total ad spending on cable TV was up just under 10% over 2006. By comparison, expenditures were up 15% on Nick at Nite, 26% on TV Land, 32% on Toon Disney and 8% on ABC Family.
“There's quite a bit of co-viewing going on,” says Jess Aguirre, senior VP of research at Hallmark Channel. “The reality is people are watching this because it's a safe haven and antidote to the other stuff that's on TV.”