Special Report: Family Programming: Call in the family: Is it realistic to try to cater to the whole family? Some think so.

Families have always shared a kind of peculiar community all their own. In pre-TV days, family life revolved around common stories and tales, religious rituals and holidays. Today, many programmers are trying to get that same family unit to gather together...
December 1, 1997

Families have always shared a kind of peculiar community all their own. In pre-TV days, family life revolved around common stories and tales, religious rituals and holidays. Today, many programmers are trying to get that same family unit to gather together in front of the TV set. While some are having tremendous success, others are finding the target difficult to hit.

This month’s report on family programming takes a look at those broadcasters trying to make it work and how they are doing it.

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The FCC regulations that came into effect this year, forcing networks to provide nourishing viewing for kids, touched off a wave of kids-and-family rhetoric in the industry, even among programmers not technically affected by the ruling. In network prime time and on cable channels, ‘kids and family programming’ became a buzzword. But as the year comes to a close, questions linger about whether programming to kids and their parents is an industry trend or just a lot of smoke.

‘The days of the single set in the living room are over,’ says Kelly Kahl, vice president of program scheduling and planning for CBS’s entertainment division. ‘Kids have their own sets in their bedrooms, and cable channels like Nick and Cartoon Network just for them. Family viewing has become very fractionalized.’

While few in the industry would argue with this fact, most would allow that when an offering targeted at the whole family hits, it hits big. The network premiere of Cinderella on ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney won the attention of programmers everywhere when it landed high ratings with both youth and adult demos. ‘With the right program, you can get the family audience,’ says Kahl.

While many networks are examining Wonderful World of Disney’s success with an eye on getting their own piece of the family pie, it’s difficult to determine which networks have expanded family programming, and the definition of the genre is undergoing radical change. ‘It depends what you mean by family programming,’ says Kahl. ‘Some people say Monday night football is family programming.’ Casting about for a contemporary definition, some networks look to the ratings, taking note of programs that pull in adults as well as kids. In many instances, these are not the squeaky-clean ‘family shows’ of yesteryear.

At ABC, executives note that the network has always been known for having a lot of family programming. Yet their criteria for defining family programming have undergone a shift. Today, Home Improvement is cited by the network as a good example of family programming, according to Jeff Baden, vice president of program planning and scheduling. Noting that the show occasionally takes on adult themes, Baden says the kids on the show make it youth-friendly. Indeed, a certain amount of adult content is necessary in the age of tremendously successful yet risquž adult sitcoms like NBC’s Friends, according to Baden. ‘If The Brady Bunch was on today, I don’t think it would get the numbers,’ argues Baden. ‘There are so many viewing options [and] it’s very, very tough to get families to watch together.’

ABC’s Kahl names Family Matters and Step By Step as his network’s family-oriented block on Friday nights. The social message of Touched By An Angel-along with its ability to pull in high numbers among young adults and teens-makes it another show ABC considers family-friendly.

Ironically, it’s NBC-currently hailed as the leader in adult sitcoms-that seems to have the strictest definition of family programming. According to a spokesperson, NBC only considers shows with social value and little or no adult content, such as sex or violence, as family shows. Acknowledging that few of the network’s series would fit that description, executives cite movies and miniseries as NBC’s big push in the family arena. Gulliver’s Travels, The Odyssey and the upcoming Merlin are movies of the week targeted at parents and kids. Between 8 and 11 p.m., however, NBC’s programming is directly targeted at the 18 to 49 demographic. ‘Advertisers demand that we go after that demo,’ an NBC spokesperson concedes. Given NBC’s ratings success, few would challenge that stance. ‘I don’t think anybody is going to knock NBC for having adult programs,’ notes Kahl. ‘I don’t think that they would give up any of their adult programs. They make a lot of money [on them].’

Indeed, a pressing question in the family arena is this: can shows that try to bring kids and their parents to the same set make money? ‘It’s a great goal,’ says Baden. ‘Every year, we put on shows that we hope will be good shows. But you can’t make families watch together.’ Inconsistent ratings for such offerings also discourage advertiser support. ‘In prime time, no network sells ads based on kids and teens numbers,’ says Baden. Still, the executive sees a window of opportunity when it comes to advertisers who want to reach youth audiences as well as adults. ‘There are certain packaged-goods companies that target that audience. There’s a lot of family product out there,’ he says.

Kahl is cautiously optimistic. ‘Certain advertisers like to be in a safe environment, which a lot of family-oriented shows provide,’ he says. ‘Advertisers can feel good about running a spot on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Touched By An Angel, where they don’t have to worry about angry letters from viewers who object [to adult content].’ Still, schedulers have to be careful in taking on young-skewing shows in prime time. ‘The perception is that there’s a danger in putting a show on that’s only going to appeal to kids,’ says Kahl.

Interestingly, at least one network’s advances into the family arena seem to be a veiled attempt to target kids. Commenting on Fox Broadcasting’s acquisition of The Family Channel this year, Haim Saban, CEO of Fox Kids Worldwide, recently proclaimed, ‘We are taking over The Family Channel and plan to make it the dominant cable network of the next millennium.’ Rumors that the network plans to transform the cable outlet into a full-time kids channel and an expanded outlet for Saban product have neither been confirmed nor denied. ‘Some people think if you’re talking about family programming, you’re talking about kids programming,’ comments Kahl. This may turn out to be the case for The Family Channel.

One broadcaster that has had success with family programming is Disney Channel, an advertising-free environment where family-oriented programs have prospered. At Disney Channel, animal shows on Saturday morning and original movies in prime time-in other words, non-animated programming designed to appeal to both adults and kids-play a pivotal role in the schedule. Music specials such as the LeAnn Rimes pop/country music special have successfully targeted the whole family. Efforts like these prove that broadcasters who are willing to take a risk on family programming can attract a mixed demographic, and hopefully land the elusive family viewers.

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