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Family Hour Follies

by Christopher Gildemeister

 

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 Family Hour. 

 

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 Family Hour.

 

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 later time.

 

  • 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 reprehensible.

 

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.


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