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The 2009 Fall Season: ABC

By Christopher Gildemeister


Originally a spin-off of the NBC radio network (at first, ABC was known as the “Blue Network”), ABC entered television in 1948. For decades the perennial third-place network, ABC finally came into its own with a string of prime-time successes in the 1970s. Cunningly counter-programming CBS’ politically relevant sitcoms and dramas, ABC became the home to fantasy-based shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and light-hearted comedies like Happy Days. The longtime home of Disney on television (ABC provided much of the funding for Disneyland in the 1950s), the network was purchased by Disney in 1996. But while some of the programming Disney provides to television is wholesome and provides acceptable fare for children and families (cable’s Disney Channel and its new network aimed at young boys, Disney XD), much is not – as can be seen by the Disney-owned ABC Family network…and by ABC on broadcast television, as well.


For several years, ABC’s prime-time lineup has comprised a mix of family-friendly and uplifting programs, and others far less so. The network’s dichotomous attitude is notably visible this season – as a look at the Alphabet Network’s prime-time schedule will attest.


Monday nights on ABC have largely been taken up with the hit reality show Dancing With the Stars (8:00 p.m. ET). While once this program was a shoo-in as a family-friendly favorite, over the years it has become less so, with more dances emphasizing erotic gestures, and judge Bruno Tonioli’s sexualized comments becoming more explicit. Make no mistake: Dancing With the Stars is certainly not Two and a Half Men or Family Guy, but it’s occasional and mildly risqué content may be of slight concern to some parents. As a competition, Dancing With the Stars also has an episode on Tuesdays, where results of the competition are announced. In late November, Dancing With the Stars will end its current season and be replaced with The Bachelor, a program with more problematic content, such as references to and implications of sex between the title “bachelor” and the thirty-some women competing for his attention. Beyond this seamy premise, the show also often features bleeped language and occasional fights between the women.


Mondays end with the crime drama Castle (10:00 p.m. ET), about a mystery writer who teams up with a woman detective to solve crimes (and gain new material for his novels). As is typical of programs in the 10 o’clock spot, Castle contains a good deal of violence, frequent sexual commentary and innuendo, and some foul language.


Tuesday leads off with V (8:00 p.m. ET), a “reimagining” of the 1980s science-fiction program about aliens invading Earth, slowly undermining earthly institutions and attempting to gain humans’ trust. The first episode featured some brief violence and scenes possibly disturbing to young children, people’s skin being torn to display alien lizardlike characteristics beneath; but since only one episode has aired at this writing, the show may become more violent as time goes on.


Following the Dancing With the Stars Results Show is The Forgotten (10:00 p.m. ET), which follows an organization devoted to investigating unidentified murder victims and attempting to bring the killers to justice. Like many another program with a forensic premise, The Forgotten frequently features corpses, autopsies and other graphic gore, with flashbacks to or recreations of murders also often shown.


Wednesdays are situation comedy night on ABC…though in recent weeks both the 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. timeslots have been abandoned, with ABC withdrawing the poorly-rated Hank and Eastwick from its schedule, respectively. 8:00 p.m. ET is mostly now filled by reruns, and 10 o’clock by a number of specials, until the mid-season replacement programming is put in place post-Christmas.


This leaves Wednesdays filled with The Middle (8:30 p.m. ET), a mostly family-friendly sitcom featuring Patricia Heaton as a Midwestern working mother with several children. Almost uniquely in today’s sensibilities, the family in The Middle is presented as a cohesive unit, with a hard-working and loyal father, a strong mother and rambunctious but largely obedient children. Sexual innuendo, profanity and distasteful humor is kept to a minimum, and the show is about as inoffensive as it is possible for a prime-time network sitcom to be in these days.


The family theme is continued with the breakout hit Modern Family at 9 o’clock. Devoted to the “modern families” prevalent today, the show features a traditional family, a gay couple who have adopted, and a man in a midlife crisis with a much younger wife. Language has included words like “bitch” and “ass,” and sexual innuendo is frequent though not extreme.


The same cannot be said of Cougar Town (9:30), probably ABC’s most offensive and outrageous new program this season. Starring Courteney Cox as a “cougar” obsessed with sex with younger men (or maybe just sex, period), Cougar Town has featured dozens of raunchy sex jokes per episode – often involving the character’s teenage son and his friends. Thus far, Cox’s character has flashed a newspaper boy; performed oral sex on a date with her son watching; posed for a revealing ad, causing teenage boys to steal the ads all over town and looking at them while they masturbate; shown a sex tape of herself and her ex-husband to all of her women friends; listed to a friend offer to take her son’s virginity; and talked on the phone with her friend while her friend has sex with her husband. Twice named Worst TV Show of the Week (thus far), Cougar Town is unrelenting in its focus on the tawdry and is not recommended for families.


Thursdays open with FlashForward (8:00 p.m. ET), a new science-fiction/mystery drama clearly intended as ABC’s replacement as the soon-to-end Lost. Like that program, FlashForward is mostly devoted to intricate storytelling, but has also contained some extremely troubling and disturbing imagery. The show’s plot concerns everyone on Earth having a vision of their future. Worrisome scenes in the program have included a man lying atop with his girlfriend in bed just after intercourse, with her naked legs wrapped completely around his waist. During their tryst, the man has a graphic “flashforward” of himself brutally murdering another man; a horrifying multi-car crash, with victims covered in blood; and an extremely explicit scene set in a bondage-style club, where members are subjected to hideous tortures such as playing Russian roulette, hanging from chains while being beaten and flogged, and being soaked in water, then electrocuted. Airing as it does during the first hour of prime time, parents should be careful of children coming upon FlashForward unawares.


Filling the rest of Thursdays, the soap operas Grey’s Anatomy (9:00) and Private Practice (10:00) continue to be totally dominated by nonstop sexualized dialogue and the bed-hopping sexual exploits of their large and intertwined casts. Blood and graphic injuries are also common on these shows, making them poor choices for family viewing.


On Fridays, ABC offers a bizarrely mis-matched triple play of programming. Opening the night with Supernanny (8:00 p.m. ET), a program devoted to a British nanny teaching parents how to cope with misbehaving children, the network then moves along to the comedy Ugly Betty (9:00). While Supernanny is mostly devoid of offensive content (though it may not be ideal for young viewers, as wildly misbehaving children are at the forefront of every episode), Ugly Betty – touted in early seasons as a family-friendly comedy – has gotten more and more entrenched in sexualized plotlines, characters and dialogue. Parents should be aware that, while America Ferrera’s Betty is a fun and wholesome role model for young girls, none of the other characters in the show are. The network ends the night with the news program 20/20.


Saturdays on ABC have thus far this season been devoted to football, while Sunday nights open at 7:00 p.m. ET with the long-running America’s Funniest Home Videos. AFV features heavy use of such scenes as men being hit in the crotch and inadvertent sexual innuendo, as well as some stronger violence; but because everything depicted is (at least ostensibly) accidental and is played for comedy, little in the show is likely to be deeply offensive to families. And Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (8:00 p.m. ET) is totally inoffensive, and often is moving and inspirational. Devoted to literally building homes for those in need, the program features no sex or violence, and even the mildest profanity is extremely rare. So delightful is this program that it has been frequently chosen as Best TV Show of the Week


By contrast, Desperate Housewives (9:00) lurches into heavily adult territory. A supposedly satirical take on suburban life, the show is replete with references to and depictions of sex (often between adults and teenagers), violent storylines involving murder, and frequent profanity, as well as a deeply flawed presentation of family life. Rounding out ABC’s week is Brothers & Sisters, about a large extended family. Sexual innuendo and content is frequent, as are some otherwise disturbing storylines. Neither program is recommended for families or children.


During some of its most successful periods, ABC devoted itself to programming meant simply to entertain, not be controversial or provocative; and with its current owner being The Walt Disney Company, it is sad that the network – one of the nation’s longest-lived – cannot find space for more family-friendly programming.


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


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