Family-TV forecast: partly cloudy

Posted: Jun 07, 2002 12:00 AM
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 dropped. 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 offensive programming.) 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 schedule. 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,
and 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 instead." 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 Vampire Slayer." 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.