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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the Week of November 6, 2006


Previously, Culture Watch has focused on the ways in which cable television has increasingly forsaken its once-stated mission of providing an alternative to broadcast programming, and how cable itself has crept towards a greater emphasis on explicit sex and graphic violence. But cable's greatest failure as a "safe haven" for viewers has been on the networks supposedly intended for families and children. 


The Cartoon Network premiered on October 1, 1992 as a network in the Turner Broadcasting empire. Holding the rights to both Warner Bros. pre-1948 cartoons and the Hanna-Barbera studios' output, Cartoon Network was a mecca for fans of animation young and old alike. Originally devoted solely to reruns of classic cartoons, the viewer could enjoy watching Cartoon Network, sharing with his children cartoons with  which several generations had grown up, secure in the knowledge that Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Tom and Jerry and other figures of fun would delight another generation of children without exposing them to malign influences. 


But after its acquisition by Time Warner in 1996, the orientation of the Cartoon Network began to change. No longer content with airing timeless classics whose appeal has endured for decades, Time Warner began emphasizing more "edgy" programming. Beginning with the reduction of the iconic 1960s superhero character Space Ghost to the butt of talk-show jokes, Cartoon Network increasingly devoted its efforts to attracting viewers outside its core audience of children. The network further disaffected young children (and undoubtedly saved money) by choosing to focus overwhelmingly on imported Japanese animation, much of which is dark, morally ambiguous and dominated by violence. Indeed, for several years it was nearly impossible to find programming on Cartoon Network which was not Japanese anime. Today, while anime retains a large presence on Cartoon Network, the network also emphasizes such "ironic" programming as Xiaolin Showdown and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, both of which have themes which emphasize mean-spirited competition and disrespect for authority figures, and the self-explanatory The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. The channel has also aired the sexually explicit and adult-themed Family Guy.


The Cartoon Network, obsessed with its pursuit of the 18-34 demographic, has now almost entirely shunted the classic and family-friendly Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera cartoons to its offshoot network Boomerang, which is not available on many cable systems. A further demonstration of Cartoon Network's disdain for children is its rapid abandonment of its Tickle U programming bloc. Launched with much fanfare in August of 2005, Tickle U was promoted as gentle animation entirely appropriate for and aimed at preschool viewers. Less than a year later, however, the entire Tickle U concept was abandoned.


But it is Cartoon Network's creation of its late-night Adult Swim programming bloc which most clearly demonstrates its abandonment of children in favor of sexualizing teens and young adults. Adult Swim features individual episodes generally of the quarter-hour length in a mixture of styles. Some, like Sealab 2021, are old Hanna-Barbera cartoons with new soundtracks composed of crude sexual innuendo and toilet humor; others, like Lucy: Daughter of the Devil, are entirely new. So extreme is some of the Adult Swim programming that in June of this year the network began running a parental advisory warning of intense violence, sexual situations, coarse language, and suggestive dialogue. The bloc is now rated TV-MA, and is considered separate from Cartoon Network for ratings purposes.


But Cartoon Network is not alone in directing programming filled with age-inappropriate violence and sex at children. The ABC Family network is apparently attempting to completely redefine, not merely family-friendly programming, but the family itself.


Beginning as the Christian Broadcasting Network in April 1977, the nation's first satellite-launched cable television network changed its name in 1990 to The Family Channel. Airing a mix of religious and classic dramatic programs, the network was acquired by Fox Broadcasting Company in 1997 and became Fox Family, and was sold again in 2001 to ABC. The network was notable throughout its CBN, Family Channel and Fox incarnations for its emphasis on family-friendly programming.


After its acquisition by Disney (which owns the ABC television network), ABC Family foundered. Programmers cancelled several original Fox Family series like State of Grace, and ceased airing most of the made-for-television movies which had become the network's staples. Then, amidst falling ratings, in August of this year the network reinvented itself by glorifying teenage sex and edgy, adult-oriented material. The channel has trumpeted its change in orientation with the slogan "A New Kind of Family."


In keeping with its new direction, ABC Family has introduced several original series. Three Moons Over Milford has as its theme human reactions to the shattering of the moon by an asteroid. Thinking the event a harbinger of doom, many people begin acting in selfish and uninhibited ways. One man wanders the streets of Milford naked, while others indulge various vices. Carl Davis leaves his family to fulfill his dream of mountain climbing, leaving his newly destitute wife to care for the family, while daughter Lydia turns to witchcraft, burns down her high school and befriends a gang of hoodlums. In another new show, the teen soap opera Falcon Beach, lead character Paige sees her brother sell drugs to a 14-year-old whose life is endangered by them, as her friend Jason discovers that his girlfriend Tanya was involved in drugs and an escort service while working as a model, and that Tanya's mother had an affair with his own father -- just a typical summer at the beach, according to ABC Family.


But the chief jewel in ABC Family's crown has been its new drama Kyle XY. Commercials showed teenage amnesiac Kyle seeking clues to his identity while other characters wondered whether he is a human being, an alien or something else. Viewers who tuned in innocently expecting an intriguing mystery with a science-fiction twist were caught unprepared for the deluge of teenage smut with which the program inundated them.


Kyle XY is explicit in its depiction – and approval -- of teenage sex. Immediately after awakening in the forest, the nude Kyle comes upon a couple having sex. Meanwhile, his soon-to-be friend Lori sneaks a boy with whom she has had sex out of her bedroom under her mother's nose, while her brother Josh returns from school with a pornographic magazine and eagerly prepares to masturbate – and all this occurs in the first episode. Later episodes show Lori both complaining to a friend that she let a boy fondle her genitals only to discover he had warts on his fingers, and ogling the naked Kyle as he steps out of the shower: "You're apparently not Jewish!" she leers. While Lori has sex with a casual acquaintance in the shrubs at a party, Josh mocks Kyle for having an erection while swimming. Josh shows Kyle his pornography and tells him, "There are ways to handle that little problem," and proceeds to teach Kyle how to masturbate. Apparently believing that such content is ideal for "A New Kind of Family," the network has ordered an additional 13 episodes of the program set to air in 2007.


In addition to its original programming, ABC Family airs reruns of such sexually-charged series as Everwood, with its plots involving a teen boy impregnating a babysitter, and Gilmore Girls, in which both a mother and her daughter indulge in casual sex. ABC Family also offers endless repeats of movies with sexually degrading and child-inappropriate premises, such as Love Don't Cost a Thing (August 14) and Deliver Us From Eva (August 26), both of which involve people being bribed to pose as lovers; Best Man Worst Friend (July 9), in which a man pursues his best friend's fiancée; Chasing Liberty, in which the president's daughter eludes her Secret Service escort to date an older man (the commercials of which show the girl boasting to her father that she is "getting to third base before I'm 14!");  the crude theatrical comedies Big Daddy and National Lampoon's European Vacation; and the perfectly-timed-for-back-to-school The Perfect Score (September 7), in which a group of students plot to steal the answer key to their SAT examinations. Nearly all of ABC Family's movies are rated TV-14 for sexual dialogue and foul language, and many are similarly rated for either sex or violence. Even reruns of the generally innocuous comedy Whose Line Is It Anyway? follow the network's new paradigm, in that clean PG-rated episodes air after 10 pm when most children are in bed, while raunchier TV-14 rated ones typically air in the 8 o'clock hour.


While ABC Family is not the only network to lure unsuspecting child and teen viewers with louche programming – as the next Culture Watch will demonstrate – the network is particularly reprehensible in its distorted view of "family." Most of its programs involve teen characters in casual sexual situations, while parents in the shows demonstrate little or no concern with their children's sexual activities.  This is all the more disturbing in that ABC Family is owned by Disney, whose own Disney Channel programming is filled with positive role models and genuinely family-friendly themes. This apparent corporate schizophrenia is intensified when one considers that Disney also owns the ABC broadcast network, which shows bed-hopping dramas like Grey's Anatomy and the sex-obsessed What About Brian.


With its institution of the new ABC Family, Disney is playing both sides of the cable street – providing admirably family-friendly programming on the Disney Channel while simultaneously pushing the envelope with edgy and sexually explicit programming on what it disingenuously labels a "family" network. Is Disney truly devoted to providing entertainment living up to the classic Disney image – or is it more interested in seducing young viewers and families with salacious fare? There is evidence for the latter, given that during a Family Friendly Programming Forum symposium in September 2005, programmers stated that ABC's sex-filled Desperate Housewives, with its storylines involving a housewife having sex with a teenage boy and a teenage boy seducing his mother's sex-addict boyfriend, should be considered "family viewing," since its viewership included some children ages 6-11. While it is to be hoped that the values which once made the word "Disney" synonymous with "family-friendly entertainment" ultimately win out, the opinions expressed at the forum reveal Hollywood's "progressive" view of what such programming ought to be like.


"A New Kind of Family" indeed.


"If you have got a program that is family-friendly, but it's not performing because it's too niche, or too soft or treacly, that's a deterrent." -- Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Primetime Entertainment (Focus on the Family website, September 25, 2005)

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