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Family Hour Follies
For decades, the first hour of
prime time was a place for television programming that the whole family could
enjoy. Television broadcasters, exercising their corporate responsibility to act
in the public interest, reserved adult-themed shows for later in the evening
when the youngest viewers were likely to be asleep.
Over time, a few adult-oriented shows began to appear in
the first hour of prime time. In reaction, during the 1970s the TV networks
showed a sense of restraint by voluntarily choosing to set aside that
early hour for programs suitable for children.
Ever since, the time between 8
and 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and between 7 and 9 p.m. on Sundays, in the
Eastern time zone (7 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday
in the Central time zone) has been referred to as the Family Hour.
The networks continued this policy until the mid-1980s,
showing wholesome hits like Happy Days and The Cosby Show. Unfortunately,
throughout the 1990s, the networks drifted away from their Family Hour policy,
with more and more violent and sexual programming
appearing in the early hours of the evening.
After the release of The Sour Family Hour: 8 to 9 Goes
from Bad to Worse, the PTC’s study of Family Hour programming in 2001, even
Congress was shocked by our findings. As a result, a bipartisan coalition of
senators and congressmen urged the broadcast television industry to restore the
At first, the networks responded positively. ABC introduced
a “Happy Hour” featuring family programming several nights a week. The WB
network retained some of its older family-oriented shows in the 2001 fall season
and began developing new programs suitable for children. Even program sponsors
got into the act, with several advertisers agreeing to fund the development of
family-friendly TV scripts. At least some of the broadcast networks seemed to be
making a concerted effort to return programming during the Family Hour to a
semblance of its previously family-friendly orientation.
But it wasn’t long before programming in the first hour of
prime time slid into the gutter, with new programs featuring even more graphic
violence and explicit sex than those aired in the 1990s. In
the years since 2001, the broadcast networks have increasingly ignored the
Not only is there more violence on TV today, the depictions
of violence are far more realistic and more heinous than ever before. There is a
growing trend to depict children themselves as the victims of graphic violence;
and the violent scenes increasingly include a sexual element. Rapists, sexual
predators and fetishists cropped up with increasing frequency on prime time.
Childhood can be frightening and confusing enough for little children, without
parading child molesters and ax murderers before their eyes.
By choosing to air such content during the Family
Hour, the networks are allowing sex, gore, and foul language into the
impressionable minds of young children.
Some entertainment industry insiders might protest that,
with the advent of technology like DVRs and TiVo, fewer people are watching
television programs in “real time.” Rather, they are recording the shows to
watch later, and that therefore today the Family Hour is no longer important.
This “time-shifting” of viewing patterns is a reality, and is becoming more
prevalent. But a
recent study from the Center for Media Research shows that, even with a DVR
in one out of every five homes, 95% of TV viewing is still done live. This means
that the concept of the Family Hour remains vitally important. Obviously, even
with the advent of “time-shifting,” children do still make up a large percentage
of TV viewers in the earliest hour of prime time…and the networks’ programming
should respect, and reflect, that fact.
While the networks’ decision to purchase, promote and show
more violent and sexually explicit programs is of course the ultimate cause of
the degradation of the Family Hour – if the networks chose to show more
wholesome programs, television would be more family-friendly to begin with --
the scheduling choices made by network programmers are another major reason that
the levels of sex, language, and violence are so high in the first hour of prime
time. There are two main scheduling strategies that contribute to the current
failure of the Family Hour.
First, there is the networks’ rerun policy. Some networks
choose to rerun violent and sexually explicit programming which originally aired
at 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m. during the Family Hour. CBS’ CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI:
New York, Criminal Minds, and Cold Case are all programs which
feature extremely graphic and disturbing violence, much of it sexually charged
and directed at children; while ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy deals with sex and
other adult themes openly. All of these programs were rerun during the Family
Hour in recent months. Obviously, if a program was not suited to the 8 p.m. hour
originally, it should not be shown there as a rerun either.
Secondly, there is the fact that the networks inexplicably
choose to show some raunchier and more violent original programs early in the
evening, while running their cleaner shows later at night. As just one example,
last spring Fox aired the violent and dark series Bones at 8:00 p.m., and
the wildly popular and clean talent show American Idol at 9:00 p.m. There
are several other examples of this same phenomenon in the current fall season:
On Tuesdays, ABC is showing its new programs
Cavemen and Carpoolers, both of which contain anatomically
explicit sexual dialogue, at 8:00 and 8:30 p.m. Yet it shows the
family-friendly hit Dancing with the Stars at 9 p.m. Simply having
these programs exchange places would put the child-appropriate dancing
program on in the Family Hour, while reserving the more adult material for a
On Mondays, Fox shows its violent drama Prison
Break at 8 p.m. On Thursdays, the same network shows the delightful game
show Don’t Forget the Lyrics at 9 p.m. Why couldn’t Lyrics be
put on in the 8 o’clock hour on Mondays, with Prison Break after it?
Sunday nights on ABC begin with the clean and upbeat
family shows America’s Funniest Home Videos and Extreme Makeover:
Home Edition at 7:00 and 8:00 ET respectively; and at 10 p.m. the
network shows comparatively clean Brothers and Sisters. Why does ABC
feel the need to intersperse the raunchy sex comedy Desperate Housewives
in-between? If ABC had Housewives and Brothers and Sisters
switch places, it could have a fairly clean programming block from 7 until
10 p.m. on Sundays.
That such changes are possible is shown by the fact that
some networks already do so. For example, on Tuesdays NBC shows The Singing
Bee at 8 p.m. and The Biggest Loser at 8:30, reserving the
graphically violent Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for the 10 p.m.
hour. The same network places the clean game show Deal or No Deal on at 8
p.m. on Wednesdays, leaving the darker fantasy Bionic Woman for 9 p.m.
And CBS keeps the relatively clean program Survivor on at 8 p.m. on
Thursday, while the violent dramas CSI, CSI: New York and Criminal
Minds are relegated to later hours. With only slight adjustments to their
schedules, the broadcast networks could easily make the Family Hour appropriate
for children again.
This is a move the broadcast television networks should
make, not only for the good of America’s children, but for their own financial
good and self-preservation.
American parents are overwhelmingly concerned about TV’s
influence on their children. In a recent poll, almost 80% of those surveyed
agreed that there is too much violence, sex, and foul language on TV. According
to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report, children spend an average of three
hours every day watching television -- and an average of 10 million children
are in front of the TV set during the Family Hour every night. TV has a greater
influence on children than any other institution except the family. That this
influence should increasingly be frightening and dangerous, exposing children to
explicit sex they are not yet able to understand, and graphic violence that
would be terrifying at any time, goes beyond being unfortunate and becomes
An entire generation is now growing up without any memory
of a time when almost every program in the first hour of prime time was suitable
for everyone in the family, whatever their age. America’s TV broadcast networks
are allowed to use a public utility – the airwaves – for free, and make billions
of dollars every year doing so. Is too much to ask that they exercise some
responsibility, taste and discretion for one hour every night in return?
TV Trends: This column was
compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff: Aubree
Bowling, Caroline Schulenburg, Josh Shirlen, Katherine Kuhn and Keith White,
under the direction of Dr. John Rattliff.