Next fall, prime-time television will be a bit more
family-oriented than it's been in the recent past. ABC has announced that
several nights a week, it will provide family programming during the
evening's first hour (they are dubbing it the "Happy Hour"), and the WB
network also has declared it will offer more family-friendly fare.
Good news, yes, but you have to wonder: Will that improvement
last until the fall of 2003? Until Christmas, even?
TV shows ultimately succeed or fail in the marketplace -- more
or less. The networks don't give each series an equal chance at success or
failure. In fact, the process is entirely subjective. Some ratings-deficient
programs are axed after a couple of airings; indeed, not too long ago, one
series was canceled before the second part of its two-part premiere could be
aired. Other shows air upwards of a dozen times before they're finally
Keeping a floundering new show going can give it eventual
traction. Many programs that became major hits, such as "Cheers," "Seinfeld"
and "Touched By an Angel," struggled mightily initially. But their networks
kept them alive, confident that the audience ultimately would come.
To avoid cancellation, the typical low-rated new series needs
more than network support, however. It requires support from influential
television critics. And there's the rub for family-oriented shows. TV
critics aren't likely to back such series, since critics, as a group, are
partial to programming that's -- well, you know the vocabulary -- "adult"
(sexual), "edgy" (raunchy) and "gritty" (violent).
And what of the network executives? Sadly, they are, report the
Washington Post's Paul Farhi and Lisa de Moraes, "almost a little
embarrassed by all this family fare. You won't hear them preaching the
return of 'family' programming. Some fear that 'the dreaded F-word,' as one
network exec put it, will turn off as many viewers, particularly teens, as
it excites." (Ironic, isn't it, that they never think in those terms with
Farhi and de Moraes quote Susan Lyne, ABC's entertainment boss,
as remarking, "The connotation that has grown up around family programming
is that it's somehow safe and bland and lowest-common-denominator." Correct
me if I'm wrong, but that's not exactly a ringing endorsement from someone
who green-lighted a great deal of that programming for her network's fall
If this is Hollywood's conventional wisdom, we may fairly assume
that the networks will ditch their family programming at the first
opportunity. It's easy to imagine an NBC executive writing in his e-journal
about a family series he's deigned to schedule, "If ratings for its first
two or three episodes are weak, and the reviews aren't good,
my buddy at Fox is teasing me about airing something so warm 'n'
fuzzy 'n' dumb, then who needs it? We'll dump it and put on 'Frasier' reruns
That conventional wisdom isn't exactly airtight. With raunch as
the new TV orthodoxy, family programming is hardly "safe." In fact, it
verges on revolutionary. And if "lowest-common denominator" defines a family
series, what, pray tell, describes televised pro wrestling?
If you apply the term to a limp family show, you simply must
apply it to the likes of "Hidden Hills," a new, manifestly
non-family-oriented NBC sitcom that "from the clips," in de Moraes' words,
"seems to be about an Internet porn Little League mom and the neighbors who
lust after her." But in Hollywood, where having the mind of an adolescent
and the values of Penthouse are job requirements, such intellectual
consistency is less common than are goals at the World Cup.
So what's ahead? A New York Times piece notes that the Family
Friendly Programming Forum, the advertiser consortium that contributes
development money for family series, has placed three new entries on the
fall schedule: ABC's "Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,"
NBC's "American Dreams" and the WB's "updated remake" of the '60s sitcom
"Family Affair." They will join the WB's Forum-supported "Gilmore Girls,"
which completed its second season last month.
"Gilmore Girls" indicated that Forum-funded series wouldn't be
up to the "Father Knows Best" level of wholesomeness, but in family-viewing
terms, it's three-quarters of a loaf, and a welcome contrast to "Buffy the
Some, of course, will deem fatally flawed any show that doesn't
reach the "Father Knows Best" standard. They should ask themselves: What
would replace "Gilmore Girls" or "Eight Simple Rules" or "Family Affair"?
Realistically, it's a virtual cinch that it would be something far worse.
The Forum shows are not perfect, nor may ABC's idea of "family"
programming be entirely accurate. But they represent progress in a cleanup
that makes Hercules' task at the Augean Stables seem insignificant. We'll
know if the networks are serious if they get behind these shows seriously.