Where did all the TV families go?

Sun Journal

Programs: If the idea of a family-oriented network appears doomed, blame it on the power of sex and changes in how families watch television.

October 19, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Fifty years ago this fall, television's first family series, "The Goldbergs," a CBS sitcom about a Jewish family in the Bronx, debuted. It was an instant success and inspired a slew of copycats, with family shows becoming the backbone of network programming for the next four decades.

Today, despite an explosion of new networks and cable channels, you can count the number of series featuring such a nuclear family on one hand.

There has been a dramatic change in the relationship between family and television. Families on-screen have virtually disappeared. And programs that the whole family can watch together -- programs without excessive sex, violence or harsh language -- are few and far between.

With successful cable channels dedicated to everything from golf to gardening, you might think a channel devoted to family-friendly fare would be a sure bet. Not so. Audiences for such channels have been so disappointing as to put in question whether American television viewers really do want wholesome family programs.

Last year, Lowell "Bud" Paxson, born-again Christian and multimillionaire founder of the Home Shopping Network, saying he was "called by God," started the Pax-TV network. He promised programming that would be "highly God-driven."

But last month, after a year of rerunning such shows as "Touched by an Angel" and attracting less than 1 percent of the viewers, Paxson sold his network to NBC, whose reruns will be more sex-driven.

"Historically, the track record for channels devoted to family programming is a pretty lousy one," says Douglas Gomery, a media historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "None of them have found much of an audience. Remember Pat Robertson and his Family Channel?"

The Family Channel went through several incarnations over two decades, but never found enough of an audience to keep it from being a drain on Robertson's religious ministry. Last year it was sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation Limited and Saban Entertainment, which now run it as the Fox Family Channel.

The new entity, according to Joe Cronin, its president and CEO, inherited from Robertson a small audience of mostly older viewers. Small and old is a deadly combination in for-profit television, where advertisers prefer younger viewers because they are less set in their buying ways.

"The programming was dominated by reruns such as `Diagnosis Murder,' which had strong older appeal, but it had very little appeal to a younger family audience," Cronin says. "As a family channel, it wasn't really living up to its name."

But despite a radical redesign of the schedule and millions of dollars in original programming, Fox hasn't fared much better as a family channel. At the end of its first year, its audience was smaller than Robertson's, though the demographics are younger.

It is a strange melange of programming. The day starts with shows for preschool children. At 9 a.m. Robertson comes on for 90 minutes of "CBN Special Edition" and "700 Club." One of the conditions of sale last year, Cronin explains, was that Fox would continue to carry Robertson's 90-minute block of programs.

Thus on one recent day, the ostensible family channel featured Robertson inveighing against a Princeton University bioethicist, Peter Singer, as a Hitler figure who advocates "killing defective babies."

The afternoon schedule offers programs for older children, filled with advertisements for toys and merchandise related to such controversial kids' shows as "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" -- which was created by Haim Saban, now co-owner of Fox Family Channel.

The Faith and Values Network, a cable channel with an even smaller audience, is traveling a similar path. It started as a religious channel in 1988, but after a decade of struggle and several name changes, it took on commercial partners last year and is now operating as the Odyssey channel for "today's family." Programming ranges from reruns of "ALF," an old NBC sitcom about a smart- aleck puppet from another planet, to "Daily Mass."

Like the term "family values," family-friendly television can mean different things to different people. Paxson once defined it as: "no excessive sex, no excessive violence or foul language." On other occasions, though, he has extended the definition to include no "alternative lifestyles." So has Robertson -- and both acknowledge using the airwaves to proselytize.

As Gomery puts it, "History suggests there is not much of an audience for that kind of family television."

But what about programs about families that the family can watch together? What's responsible for the vast change from only a decade ago when "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties" and "Full House" were among the highest-rated series on network TV?

One factor was the discovery by network programmers that they could get more young viewers with sex-laden programs like NBC's "Friends" and Fox's "Ally McBeal."

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