The March issue of Brill's Content, the magazine that covers and criticizes the media industry, includes a long article by Jim Edwards about the ongoing effort from some quarters of corporate America to provide more options for family television viewing. The effort gathered steam about three years ago when executives at 10 or so companies responsible for spending staggering amounts of money on TV advertising decided to organize in order to counteract the virtual disappearance of wholesome programming from prime time.
Those companies, which formed what is now called the Family Friendly Programming Forum, have been joined by more than 30 other major corporate sponsors. The Forum roster exudes power and influence: Ford; IBM; Johnson & Johnson; McDonald's; Procter & Gamble.
That these advertisers are manning the ramparts for more family-friendly shows is a two-edged sword, since they also reserve the option to sponsor the opposite. Some Forum members have supported not just raunchy, but the raunchiest, programming in prime time. Kentucky Fried Chicken has been a regular sponsor of Fox's sleazy, sordid "Temptation Island," and, at this writing, 17 Forum members, including AT&T, Nabisco and Unilever, have advertised on Fox's "Boston Public," a disgusting 8 p.m. (yes, the family hour) series that in its most recent episode featured a female high-school teacher speculating that a male student was "hung like an elephant," and another female teacher choosing another male student, this one 15 years of age, as the one she'd most like to "take home (as) a toy."
Brill's is essentially a liberal magazine, so the publication of Edwards' piece is more evidence that concern over prime time trash is found on both sides of the political fence. It also points to the fact that this story is now too big to ignore.
In general, Edwards deals effectively with the basics, as when he poses this common-sense question: Should the "Friends" episode "in which Monica and Rachel fight over who gets to use the last condom in the package ... have aired at 8 p.m., when even 8-year-olds are usually awake and watching?" He challenges NBC executive Curt King to answer the question. I suspect Mr. King wishes he'd taken a pass. "The show ... has a self-selected audience that is comfortable with (its) content," begins the nonsensical reply. "We don't get negative reaction from the audience."
In other words, fans of "Friends" enjoy watching the show. Imagine that.
A several-paragraphs-long discussion of last summer's WB offering "Young Americans," however, is problematic. Edwards presents the series as an example of what can happen when one of the companies pushing for more family TV -- in this case, Coca-Cola -- is heavily involved in a show's production. He devotes precious column inches to how Coke came to invest in the series and what it received in return -- notably, extensive product placement.
The problem with the example is that "Young Americans" simply was not family-friendly. Take the test: Would you have been comfortable having your young children watch a show in which a teenage boy reminisced about "reading porno mags"; a literature teacher lectured to his students that passion "comes from right here" as he grabbed his crotch; a teen boy and girl, a couple, found out they had the same father, then broke up, yet continued to pine for each other -- Entertainment Weekly commented that this plotline treated teen incest as "mere puppy love" -- and a teacher caught a non-incestuous teen couple in the shower?
Far better for family viewing than "Young Americans," but still a long way from ideal is another WB program, "Gilmore Girls." In the summer of '99, 11 Forum members created a $1 million script-development fund for the network, and, a bit more than a year later, "Gilmore Girls" was the first actual show to emerge.
"Gilmore Girls" airs Thursdays at 8 o'clock and deals with the travails of a single mother in her early thirties trying to raise her teenage daughter well. There's much praiseworthy in the show, and yet its writers insist on inserting words like "crap," "ass," and "sucks" and have more than once handled sex tastelessly, as in the premiere when the mother joked that she "offered to do the principal" in order to gain her daughter admission to a private school.
For now, we can be somewhat encouraged, and grateful, that as regards all-ages viewing, "Gilmore Girls" is easily preferable to "Friends" or "Boston Public." But the Forum shouldn't settle for this standard. And its members responsible for the filth on television shouldn't be let off the hook.