Family-hour feud

Watchdogs bark at 8 p.m. content as networks defend tactics

Does the family hour still exist? Watchdog organizations, elected officials and some advertisers would like to think so, but the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. block on network television has been getting more and more away from family-oriented programming, and only old timers remember the family viewing hour was actually once a practice rather than a theory.

The addition of controversial and racy reality shows like Fear Factor
and Big Brother
in the hour have taken the networks in a decidedly different route than that of Happy Days
and The Cosby Show.

"I think there hasn't been a true quote-un-quote family hour since Friends
went in there," says media buyer Paul Schulman of Advanswers PHD NY. "Monica has been jumping in and out of bed on almost every episode. It's a huge sexual show, and it's on at 8 p.m. It's the dominant show, and the other networks certainly have not been able to ignore that."

The time period block has become "the sour family hour," according to conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council led by Brent Bozell. It released a study last week showing increases in coarse language and violent content in the hour over the year before. The study, which examined a six-week period of network television during the 2000-2001 season, also found that shows are dealing with more graphic sexual content including oral sex and pornography.

"What was once a safe haven is increasingly turning into a danger zone for America's children," Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said at the PTC press conference last week. Lieberman, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and PTC organizers say they want to re-establish the family hour.

UPN, which airs WWF Smackdown
each week at 8 p.m., was the worst offender, according to the PTC study. It had an average of 18.1 instances of either violence, coarse language or sexual content in its 8 p.m. hour. That was more than double second-place NBC at 9.1. "We strongly believe in the viewers' right to make an informed choice about what they watch, which is why we voluntarily and clearly label every UPN program with a content rating," a UPN statement said.

Broadcasters have never been legally required to set aside the 8 p.m. hour for family-friendly shows, but, in the early 70s, the FCC jawboned the National Association of Broadcasters to designate the time period as the "family-viewing hours." In 1979, a federal court ruled the NAB Television Code violated the First Amendment.

Evidently by coincidence, just hours after the PTC unveiled it study on the steps at the Capitol, CBS said it was moving back reality show Big Brother
from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. for the remainder of its summer run. The show, which has featured a contestant holding a knife to another housemates' throat and various sexual content issues, will be pushed back on all three nights starting this week.

A CBS spokesman said, "The move is motivated by content reasons and not ratings. We are very happy with the ratings, but there is some subject matter in the show that we think is more appropriate for 9 p.m."