Fox = Family? A New Show Holds Promise

The Fox Network, which all too often has functioned as an electronic limbo bar for lowering moral standards, appears to have a family-friendly winner.

Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? debuted right after mega-hit American Idol on Tuesday, Feb. 27.  Nielsen Media Research reported that the new show raked in nearly 27 million viewers, which, according to The Washington Post, makes it “the biggest opening audience of any series on any network in more than eight years.”

Lest critics of family-friendly programming give all the credit to the Idol lead in, the Post's TV columnist, Lisa de Morales, reminds readers that other post-Idol debuts have not fared nearly as well, citing My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé in 2004 and Life on a Stick in 2005.

Demonstrating that its first success was no fluke, the next 30-minute episode of 5th Grader, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, pulled in more than 23 million viewers.  Fox has a hit, and they've ordered an additional four episodes.

The concept behind 5th Grader works on many levels. It pits kids against grownups and emphasizes academic learning.  Questions are drawn from grade school textbooks.  Any parents who have tried to help their kids with homework know why this show works:  The questions are all about things we grownups used to know but have forgotten in the crush of information we actually use in adulthood.

No one would ever accuse the Fox Network of being family friendly in its programming.  The Sunday night menu alone (Family Guy, American Dad, War at Home) is a nonstop onslaught of insults, cultural corrosion and lowest-common-denominator “humor.”

Then of course there is the juggernaut that is American Idol.  The show has become more family friendly since its awful audition phase ended several weeks ago and it returned to what makes it a monster hit – the singing competition.

The success of a simple reality show like Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? bodes well for advocates of wholesome programming.  When something new and fresh comes along, there's a good chance the copycat mechanism will kick in.  Before you know it there will be a plethora of “Are You Smarter Than (Fill in the Blank)?” shows on the air. 

What the immediate success of 5th Grader shows is that salacious storylines don't have to be incorporated into a “reality” series, like those in past seasons of Survivor, the Amazing Race or Big Brother.  There don't have to be 26 beautiful, skimpily dressed models holding suitcases, as in Deal or No Deal.  You don't have to find the most outrageous contestants to fill out the cast.

Sometimes, the best formula is so simple that even a fifth grader gets it. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute (, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.