Panel: Family-friendly TV content changing

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A panel of network presidents on Tuesday discussed the definition of family-friendly programming, the state of the comedy series and the family-friendly nature of reality shows during a session at the Family Friendly Programming Forum Symposium at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson pointed out how the definition of family-friendly programming is changing, citing such shows funded by the FFPF's Script Development Fund as ABC's "Ugly Betty" and "Brothers & Sisters" and NBC's "Friday Night Lights." (The FFPF is a group of 44 major advertisers whose goal is to ensure that there is at least one family-friendly viewing option on TV every night of the week from 8-10 p.m.)

"These are sophisticated shows," he said. "One of the huge drivers (of family-friendly programming) is that it's something the whole family can watch, like (Fox's) 'American Idol' or (ABC's) 'Dancing With the Stars.' It's a whole new level, a sophisticated level -- it's not saccharine sweet."

CW president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff said that today's younger generation is different from the previous generation in terms of their viewing habits.

"We were rebelling when we were their age, but this generation likes to be with their families," she said, adding that the definition of family itself is changing. "There's no one definition of what a family is anymore," which makes for more stories that TV writers are able to tell, citing the CW's "Gilmore Girls" as an example of a show that features a nontraditional family. "A family is people who live in a home together and love each other -- that's all that matters."

The panel also agreed that reality programming tends to be very family-friendly. Peter Liguori, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co., pointed to his network's "Idol," which he noted that children, parents and grandparents in many instances all watch together. But he said that not all shows on a network's lineup can be family-friendly and ideally should consist of a good balance.

"We do go after special time periods with special shows, but if we want to create good business, we have to reach the broadest audience possible," he said, noting that he considers a show like Fox's "The O.C." as being family-friendly in that it can encourage parents to discuss tough issues with their kids.

Also during the discussion, moderated by TelevisionWeek publisher and editorial director Chuck Ross, the panel addressed the lack of successful comedies in primetime, with NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly saying that it's a "knee-jerk" reaction to say that the success of certain genres like comedy is "cyclical."

"We've been talking about the cyclical nature (of comedy) for five years now," he said. "(NBC has) seen some success with comedy, but it's tough. We launch a couple, and then this giant death star ('American Idol') comes along and wipes them out."

He noted that part of the problem is that for a while, "if you could push a pencil, you could get a $2 million deal. (That triggered) a lot of laziness and a sense of entitlement, and the American public caught up and said they were done. If you can get writers to write from their gut, you'll start to see (a turnaround)."

Reilly and CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler both said that comedies perform better in blocks and need time to grow their audiences. Tassler pointed to her network's "How I Met Your Mother" as an example of a show that got off to a "slow start" before becoming successful.

But, she added, "the bar is very high (creatively for comedies). Look at 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' 'Two and a Half Men,' 'Seinfeld,' 'Friends.' It does take longer to grow these (comedies) and nurture them."

Earlier Tuesday morning, a group of cable executives and producers addressed issues related to family-friendly programming in a discussion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter editor Cynthia Littleton.

Susanne Daniels, president of entertainment at Lifetime Entertainment Services, said she "wants to explore (programming) an evening (on Lifetime's schedule) that moms can watch with their kids, something multigenerational," while continuing to focus on women 18-49 the rest of the week.

ABC Family president Paul Lee said he believes that viewers more and more are looking for shows that the whole family can watch together. "There are signs that the more violent shows are starting to tire," he said. "People are looking for programs that aren't just about child abuse and dead bodies. There's a definite shift in this direction."

Also during the discussion -- which also featured Sheila Lawrence, co-executive producer of "Ugly Betty"; Ken Olin, executive producer and director of "Brothers & Sisters"; Carol Barbee, executive producer of CBS' "Jericho"; and Phil Rosenthal, creator/executive producer of CBS' "Raymond" -- Tim Kring, creator/executive producer of NBC's "Heroes," noted that he's surprised by the number of kids watching the show, which has meant that "we have to back off of crossing the line" in terms of the amount of violence in the show.
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