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TV Trends

Brought to you by the Parents Television Council

Audiences Hunger for Decent TV

By Christopher Gildemeister


This column has previously focused primarily on examining negative trends in television programming, particularly the trend toward increasingly greater amounts of explicit violence, graphic sex and the use of profanity. But there is another, even larger, trend in television and other forms of entertainment today – one which is, sadly, being ignored by television’s broadcast and many cable networks, but which is gaining in popularity: the overwhelming demand for family-friendly programming.


Two new studies demonstrate clearly that movie audiences prefer more wholesome entertainment. A study by Movieguide found that, in 2007, seven films with G or PG ratings earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office, and three PG-rated films were among the year's top ten earners. By contrast, only one R-rated film, 300, made the top ten. According to the survey, overall, G-rated movies averaged nearly $92 million, more than 438% better than R-rated movies, which made on average only $17 million. And in another survey, Nielsen Media Research found that the less profanity a PG-rated movie had, the more money it made at the box office.


"Parents are choosing PG films for their kids that have very, very low levels of profanity…The reality is that profanity, within [the] PG [rating], is the big demarcation between box office winner and box office loser."  -- Dan O'Toole, Research and Marketing Director for Nielsen Media Research (HoustonChronicle.com, March 13, 2008)


But Americans’ desire for family entertainment is not limited to the movies. Last week Broadcasting & Cable, essentially the weekly “bible” of the television industry, devoted a major article to the increasing demand for family-friendly programming on TV – the magazine’s industry-sympathetic editors even going so far as to opine that “in a disquieting world, family viewing has new value.”


Evidence abounds showing the desire for family-friendly programming. According to one survey undertaken by the Yankelovich research firm, over 80% of TV viewers want more programs they can watch with their family.


The survey’s findings are borne out by ratings. Prime-time broadcast television’s cleanest and most family-friendly programs, like ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and America's Funniest Home Videos and Fox's American Idol and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? are also the programs with the highest numbers of families watching together.


Audiences want clean entertainment and will select it over seamier fare – if the networks offer them a choice. As merely one isolated example, back on December 4, 2007, a rerun of the timeless Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer drew twice as many viewers as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. And the appeal of the timeless classic wasn’t limited to children; ratings showed that twice as many 18-to-49-year-olds chose to watch Rudolph than viewed the underwear show.  


The same trend holds true of cable and satellite TV. Children’s network Nickelodeon is the #1 network for viewing by parents and children together, while Nick at Nite ranks sixth and the Hallmark Channel tenth. And the most obvious example of the popularity of family-friendly programming came on August 17, 2007, when the Disney Channel’s High School Musical 2 broke all previous records for cable viewership, drawing the biggest audience ever for a basic-cable TV program. HSM2 even beat out the more widely-available broadcast networks, garnering an audience 10 million viewers larger than any other telecast the night it was broadcast. And half of those viewers were over age 14, meaning that the movie drew a sizable audience among older teens and adults. Indeed, many parents and whole families enjoyed the program together. HSM2 was squeaky-clean; the program featured absolutely no sex, violence or profanity, but did promote the virtues of honesty, trust, integrity and teamwork. A better demonstration of the popularity of, and desire for, clean entertainment can scarcely be imagined. Clearly, many, even most, Americans want decent TV programming that they feel comfortable watching with their children.


“There's quite a bit of co-viewing [children and parents watching TV together] going on…The reality is people are watching this because it's a safe haven and antidote to the other stuff that's on TV.”  -- Jess Aguirre, Senior Vice-President of Research at the Hallmark Channel (Broadcasting & Cable, March 10, 2008)


Nor is it only TV viewers who are demanding cleaner programming. Many advertisers, keenly aware of Americans’ preference for family-friendly entertainment, and wishing to associate their products with positive programming, place their ads accordingly. In 2007, the total amount spent by advertisers on cable TV as a whole rose less than 10% over that in 2006. But by comparison, sponsors spent 15% more on to advertise on Nick at Nite, 26% more to advertise on TV Land, and 32% on advertise on the family-friendly Toon Disney network.


And more and more advertisers are seeking to avoid sponsoring programs containing sex, violence and profanity. In a recent survey, Media Life magazine’s online edition asked media planners and buyers to identify the top dozen shows their clients were least inclined to sponsor.  Among prime-time broadcast network programs that advertisers seek to avoid were CBS’ Dexter and Two and a Half Men and Fox’s Family Guy.  On cable, chief among advertisers’ shows to avoid were Comedy Central’s South Park and the FX network’s Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. All of these programs have been the subject of extensive PTC campaigns to alert viewers and advertisers about their negative content.

“I've been in the family genre for about 20 years, and I can truly say that as television has gotten edgier, advertisers' appetite for family programming has become more significant.” -- Bill Abbott, Executive Vice-President of Advertising Sales at the Hallmark Channel (Broadcasting & Cable, March 10, 2008)


Unfortunately, much of the entertainment industry has refused to respond to the overwhelming demand for family-friendly entertainment. Of Americans surveyed in the Yankelovich poll, an incredible 88% noted a huge increase in televised violence and sex in the last five years. This awareness on the part of ordinary Americans confirms the results of the PTC’s studies of TV violence and the erosion of decent programming during the Family Hour (the first hour of prime time).


The evidence is clear – and overwhelming – that audiences are increasingly demanding entertainment free of sex, violence and foul language. But as the articles and statistics cited above show, TV’s executives, “creative” personnel and critics are hopelessly out of touch with the preferences and desires, not only of the advertisers who pay to sponsor their programs, but with the millions of their fellow Americans who want simply to be able to watch TV with their children, free from fear or concern about having them exposed to graphic content.


If those in charge of producing popular entertainment do not change to meet the demands of American consumers, they should be prepared to see their ratings sink lower and lower; and in a world where there are now dozens of opportunities for entertainment other than TV, the networks’ own failure to turn from their obsession with the perverse could bring about a day when millions of Americans desert TV entirely.

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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