Life, it is said, can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. In that spirit, let's explore the relationship between the television industry and the family viewing audience by examining the way in which that audience was served last season -- and what its options are these days.
Earlier this month (note to editors: October), the Parents Television Council, which I head, released a report letter-grading the major broadcast networks based on how much family-friendly programming they aired in the first two hours of prime time each night during the 1999-2000 season.
The last hour of prime time tends to be the most offensive, but since it is when the least number of children are watching, it wasn't counted. For all intents, then, these grades were counted on the curve.
Guess what? The networks (ITAL) still (ITAL) couldn't earn an A. Not (ITAL) one (ITAL) received even a B.
CBS (C-plus) was our valedictorian, for what it's worth, on the strength of "Touched By an Angel," "Cosby" and "Early Edition." Although the last two have been canceled, two new entries, "The Fugitive" and the sitcom "Welcome to New York," may -- may -- be suitable replacements. But that's it.
WB (C-minus) was a study in extremes. This past year it was home to the wholesome "7th Heaven," "Roswell" and the now-defunct "Safe Harbor," but it also aired some of prime time's raciest series, among them "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Popular," all of which returned this season. The WB has added one family show, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," which ABC junked last spring. But that's all.
ABC (D) avoided family oblivion in terms of scripted series last season only by dint of its TGIF comedies "Sabrina" and the now-canceled "Boy Meets World." Otherwise, 8 p.m. shows included the sex-crazed "Spin City"; 9 p.m. shows included the sex-crazed "Drew Carey Show." What family programming is left on the Disney-owned network? "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Monday Night Football" -- but no dramas or sitcoms.
UPN (D) boasts "Moesha." In the network's debit column was almost everything else, with special mention going to the despicable "WWF Smackdown!"
NBC (D-minus) was one of two webs to offer no family series whatsoever last season. This year, the Peacock's idea of appropriate 8 o'clock programming is old adult comedies like "Friends" and new offerings like the Aaron Spelling soap "Titans."
Fox (F) is, of course, the other network. Among its most putrid fare: the animated "Family Guy," which tried and failed to mine toilet humor from pornography, masturbation, incest, necrophilia and the like. There was "Ally McBeal," which kicked off last season with the title character driving into a car wash, eyeing the hunky attendant, and having sex with him on the spot.
"Ally McBeal" is back, and its lead-in, the new, high-school-set "Boston Public," is just more trash from "Ally" producer David Kelley. Among the delights in the premiere: Students use borderline-pornographic cartoons to ridicule teachers on a Web site, and a student blackmails a teacher with whom she's having a sexual relationship.
Out of almost 100 series on prime time broadcast television, there are only about a half-dozen left that aren't radioactive for youngsters. Cable television, with networks like Comedy Central and MTV headed for the pornographic, is even more dangerous.
Thankfully, an alternative to all this trash is emerging. Check out Pax TV if you haven't done so already. This family-oriented broadcast network, which went on the air in August 1998, now carries an hour of original programming each weeknight from 8 to 9 to go with its off-network rerun slate.
Among Pax's own shows are "Mysterious Ways," about the power of miracles, and "Twice in a Lifetime," about a recently deceased man who acts as a celestial guardian, offering lucky souls the chance to change their lives by revisiting their past. Pax also plans original movies based on Catherine Marshall's book "Christy." (Fans of family TV remember fondly the "Christy" series, which aired, too briefly, on CBS in the mid-'90s.)
Pax is now available in better than 81 percent of U.S. television households. It may soon become a full-fledged answer to the established networks that have, by and large, abandoned any sense of responsibility to the family.