It was encouraging, almost a decade ago, when it was announced that some corporate advertisers had banded together to offer their corporate support for television shows that were more friendly to viewing by entire families. The group was called the Family Friendly Programming Forum, and over the years, its presence certainly has helped bring some safer programming to television.
But in the world of the networks, where sleaze, sex, blood and shock are the rule, the definition of "family friendly" can easily be watered down -- and has been. One TV critic announced the FFPF's annual awards show on the CW network in a logical way: "With all the innuendo and violence in prime-time shows, it's amazing they can even field a group of nominees for the annual Family Television Awards."
Forget the trouble with fielding nominees. Ask yourself: What about the winners? The FFPF's top award-winning "family friendly" shows were NBC's "Heroes" for best drama and ABC's "Ugly Betty" for best comedy.
Just how "family friendly" are these shows?
"Heroes," an action comic book that came to life, presented a compelling first season around the concept that everyday people who discovered they had superpowers were suddenly threatened with an evil conspiracy to eliminate their gifted kind. It isn't as "corny" as a classic comic book. While its good and evil characters are assembled to root for and against, some heroes are "complex," that Hollywood euphemism for bizarre. Take, for example, the schizophrenic mother whose "super" alter ego is only heroic in that she will kill anyone who endangers her child.
"Heroes" is also a show with plenty of dark themes and violence. Its primary villain, named Sylar, has a nasty habit of slicing the tops of heads off of his victims. As the season drew to a close, another villain succumbed when a mortally wounded hero put a fist-sized hole in his skull. The whole season was predicated on one of the central heroes fearing that he would cause the mass murder of New York with the wrongful application of his powers. For young children, NBC could have easily called this show "Nightmares."
But "Ugly Betty" was an even less acceptable choice because it was presented to FFPF and ABC before it ever aired as a "family friendly" alternative. The title character is Betty Suarez, a sympathetic Mexican American secretary at a fashion magazine cursed with ugly glasses, braces and zero fashion sense. After the loss of her mother, Betty is clearly the glue that holds her family together: her father, her adult sister and a nephew. She also helps keep her fashion-magazine boss, a natural playboy, on a straighter and narrower path. She's a nerdy heroine in a morally upside-down world.
But anyone watching this show's first season could see that the "family friendly" tag just doesn't apply anywhere near this. The Parents Television Council's analysts counted 205 instances of sexual content and 154 examples of foul language in just the first season. They also found catty references to oral sex, genital size, pornography, strippers, anal sex, threesomes, kinky and fetishistic behavior, transsexuals, statutory rape, sadism, and masochism.
With this show set in the fashion industry, the show is heavy on sexual scenes and sex talk, straight and gay. "Ugly Betty" has several gay characters and a transgendered former man (improbably played by former supermodel Rebecca Romijn). Even Betty's teenaged nephew, Justin, is effeminate and loves the fashion industry. They've never openly addressed whether he is gay, but the show's creator, Silvio Horta, is gay and said the Justin character will experience "the journey" as he matures on the show. "I see myself in him," Horta says. The actor playing Justin is 12, but Horta loves the way he is "able to play up the flamboyance."
The writers love to throw gay and lesbian references in everywhere. In a recent show, guest star Betty White, playing herself, declared that she adored her fans, "except for the few sickos who write lesbian fan fiction about me and Bea Arthur."
This is "family friendly"? When a show can win both a Family Television Award and a Media Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, as "Ugly Betty" has, you know there's something wrong. With a pile of plots advancing the gay agenda, a GLAAD Award is appropriate. A "family friendly" award is insulting.
What does the FFPF think the phrase "family friendly" means? It shouldn't just mean a show with sympathetic leading characters. It should mean what it plainly says -- that you can put your grade-school children in front of it without wincing at bloody murders or needing a dictionary of sexual slang. These choices make you wonder if that TV critic is right. Is network TV so far gone that these shows are the ones who most deserve awards for wholesomeness?