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Network Executives In Denial About Demand for Decency



During a recent symposium at the Paley Center for Media, a startling event occurred. Startling, that is, save to the millions of Americans weary of the current state of television programming as oversexed, overly violent and using over the top language.


As revealed by TheWrap.com, during the June 9th Alliance for Family Entertainment Symposium’s discussion session featuring both TV writers and top network executives, the Association of National Advertisers broached the suggestion that there is a huge, unfulfilled demand for a return to the Family Hour on prime-time TV – or at least a return to family-friendly programming. The ANA suggested that the current lack of such programming represents the biggest missed opportunity in Hollywood today. So strongly do America’s biggest advertisers feel about the need for decency in entertainment that the ANA has announced the creation of a fund to aid the Humanitas Prize screenwriting group in support of creating more family-friendly programming. This column has previously noted the great demand for clean entertainment by large segments of the American public; and now, even the nation’s top 40 advertisers see that Americans want entertainment they can watch with their children.


Sadly, the TV industry’s response was typical: they didn’t want to hear it.


"The experience of a nuclear family sitting around in the same place at the same time might be a throwback," opined Ali LeRoi, executive producer of Everybody Hates Chris, the CW network’s only current family-friendly program.


Yet such statements are belied by a 2007 Yankelovich poll of TV viewers. In that poll, 63% of parents with children said the content of today’s programs forces parents with children at home to watch TV separately (only 53% of parents expressed the same view in 2001); 68% of respondents said there are not enough shows on TV that parents and children can watch together; 74% believed that TV does a poor job of reinforcing the values parents want to teach to their children; 81% wanted to see more programs that they can watch with other members of their household; and nearly nine in ten parents (88%) said it is important to them to view TV programs with their children.


Furthermore, the poll found that, in contradiction to the view of audiences as fragmented expressed by the panelists, fully 70% of all TV continues to be viewed in the family room or living room. And in meetings with focus groups around the nation, viewers repeatedly expressed sentiments like, "there are lots of channels but it’s hard to find something to watch," and "I’m tired of having to have my hand on the remote when watching TV with my kids." (Statistics and quotes from AdAge.com, June 19, 2008)


But apparently the opinions held by an overwhelming number of American viewers are unimportant to TV’s top bosses. Just as the networks’ multi-millionaire executives must be ignorant of the difficulties average American parents face in making a living, so too they are apparently oblivious to the desire of those same parents for positive entertainment.


Contempt for the concerns of average Americans was rife at the Paley Center panel. The network executives in attendance uniformly rejected any and all attempts to persuade them of the desirability of making a renewed commitment to family-friendly programming -- as well as the idea that any normal viewer could possibly find their programming objectionable.


Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly boasted that Fox’s long-running animated program The Simpsons is often considered the most family-friendly program on TV. But given The Simpsons‘ popularity and relatively family-friendly values, Reilly failed to explain why Fox recently cancelled the similarly family-oriented King of the Hill – or why Fox has turned over three-quarters of its Sunday night schedule to programs produced by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad, and the upcoming The Cleveland Show) – programs openly and uniformly hostile to families.


The CW’s Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff stated that in today’s cultural environment, the idea of developing more family-friendly programming is “unrealistic.” It certainly appears unrealistic when one considers CW programs like Gossip Girl, 90210 and the upcoming revival of Melrose Place, which are glutted with teenage characters having sex and using drugs. (And despite Ostroff’s claim that the CW “targets women aged 18-34,” given the overwhelming number of teenage characters – together with their youth-centric advertising and promotional efforts – the only rational conclusion is that her network is directly and overtly targeting teens with their explicitly sexual storylines).  


"[Divorce-themed] shows like The New Adventures of Old Christine and Gary Unmarried merely reflect a different family dynamic," added CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler. Such sentiments are unsurprising coming from Tassler, who last summer championed another “different family dynamic” in the depraved, disastrous and now happily-defunct Swingtown, which depicted wife-swapping orgies among adults and a teenage girl having sex with her high-school teacher. Tassler purchased that program for CBS and defended it to the press with the words, “If we had abandoned or buried Swingtown, I would never have been able to live with myself…This is a labor of love!” Despite Tassler’s passionate devotion to a program glorifying extramarital sex and drug use, CBS ultimately cancelled the show after dozens of sponsors refused to advertise on it. Notably, by the time of its cancellation Swingtown had lost an incredible 70% of the audience who watched the first episode.


A better demonstration of the average American viewer’s repugnance for such sleazy and depressing fare could scarcely be imagined; yet the broadcast network’s top executives continue to delude themselves that shows like Swingtown, Family Guy, Gossip Girl and the sex-slathered Two and a Half Men are exactly what Americans want.


The broadcast networks endlessly bemoan their dire financial state, claiming that competition from cable and satellite TV, online video and other high-tech sources are drawing away huge numbers of viewers (even while these same networks tell advertisers that no medium draws as large an audience or is as influential as broadcast TV).  And with the recent transition to digital TV, local stations now have even more hours to fill – and will inevitably turn to the broadcast networks in search of programming. If such programming is not forthcoming, the networks will have lost a huge opportunity to attract viewers and sponsors.  


Therefore, the network executives would be wise to consider the desires both of their viewers and their corporate sponsors; for without sponsors, the networks will not have the money to function. Already, many large advertisers are refusing to commit themselves to buying commercial time on the broadcast networks – a process which, in the past, was largely completed by mid-June, but which has not even begun this year. 


Without viewers watching the network’s programs (and the sponsors’ commercials), the sponsors will have little reason to continue to purchase commercial time on television. Already, Americans are tired of the networks’ intransigence; and sooner or later they will turn away from broadcast TV in search of decent, quality entertainment.


In fact, many Americans are already doing so in movie theaters. As revealed by Advertising Age, the recent success of movies like Up, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Paul Blart: Mall Cop has shown the renewed popularity of family-friendly films.


Over Memorial Day weekend, the PG-rated Night at the Museum crushed the PG-13-rated Terminator: Salvation in ticket sales – despite the popularity of the Terminator franchise, and the fact that Terminator opened a day earlier. And 20th Century Fox found that Museum attracted an audience that was 52% “non-family," i.e., without children. "[The word] 'family' is no longer code for 'kids only,' " said Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy.


And the trend has continued: Night at the Museum 2 was only dislodged from the top box-office by Up -- another PG-rated film. So prominent is this trend that 20th Century Fox has decided to edit its upcoming release Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince so that it will be appropriate for a PG rating – even though its last two Harry Potter films were rated PG-13.


"If you look at what's going on in the marketplace, you see two PG films at the top of the heap last weekend. Everything else is PG-13. That speaks volumes. There's a real need and demand for accessible entertainment, and there's been a bit of dearth of that." -- Chris Aronson, Senior Vice-President of Distribution at 20th Century Fox (AdAge.com, June 11, 2009)


With even major movie studios recognizing (and catering to) America’s desire for family-friendly entertainment, the message is clear; yet TV executives continue to bury their heads in the sand and deny the evidence of millions of dollars’ worth of movie ticket sales, advertiser demands, viewer polls and common sense. American audiences are demanding decent, family-friendly entertainment, and they will not be denied for much longer. This column has previously noted the tremendous opportunity the broadcast networks have to fill this vast (and lucrative) demand; but if they persist in their present suicidal course of favoring trash over quality, the networks inevitably must fail – and when they do, their executives will have no one to blame but themselves.


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


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