Slim Pickings on the Tube

Slim Pickings on the Tube
by L. Brent Bozell III
February 25, 1998

Sad but true: Television's "family hour" at 8 p.m., largely taken for granted until the early 1990s, is becoming a dim memory. For several years now, the broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB - in their feverish pursuit of the 18-to-49-year-old demographic have generally refused to dedicate programming during this hour to that which parents and children could watch together. It's a bad situation that's getting worse. Watched the hyperlibidinous "Spin City" (ABC, 8 p.m. Wednesdays) lately?

But what about after the so-called family hour? Let's face it, children don't separate from the TV set at 8:59 (and certainly not at 7:59 in the Central and Mountain time zones). Nor is it always necessary for them to do so. One of this decade's most wholesome (and popular) series, ABC's "Home Improvement," has aired at 9 o'clock for almost all of its seven-year run. Other programs with a large following among the young - "Diff'rent Strokes," say - have aired at 9, as have shows with storylines meant for older viewers but which, nonetheless, have seldom been inappropriate for children - "M*A*S*H," for example.

So what does the post-family hour landscape look like now? I'm thinking about this after seeing a rough copy of the Parents Television Council's "Family Guide to Prime Time Television." The guide reviews virtually all prime time, broadcast-network entertainment series and assesses them using a traffic-light system. Green denotes a show clearly acceptable for family viewing; yellow gives the show a strong cautionary note; red means that it is clearly inappropriate for youngsters. The guide also assigns each show a rating for its sexual content, another for vulgar language, and a third for violence.

The results are dreadful, to be blunt. Yes, there still is some positive, safe, highly recommended programming out there. But by and large, consider your television set to be radioactive if there are children at home. It really is that bad. Consider first the 10 p.m. hour. Millions of children are watching TV during this time, and yet how much of it is appropriate for youngsters? On broadcast television there are 11 different series during this hour every week. Some ("Law & Order"; "NYPD Blue") are highly acclaimed. But how many are appropriate for youngsters, too? Ready?

Not one. Not one single show on network TV during the 10 o'clock hour is safe for children to watch.

How about the 9-10 p.m. hour? The options for young viewers increase - but not by much. Here there are 25 shows (the number increases because of numerous half-hour sitcoms) and yet only five were green-lighted. That's 20 percent - the rest are either problematic or purely offensive for this audience. Moreover, two of the five green-light series, ABC's "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and CBS's "Family Matters," until recently competed at 9 o'clock Fridays. The others are ABC's "Teen Angel"; "HomeImprovement"; and CBS's "Early Edition," normally on Saturdays at 9 but currently removed in favor of the violent Western "The Magnificent Seven."

Meanwhile, there's plenty of racy, adult-oriented fare to pollute youngsters' minds. Most of the red-light entries, like "Seinfeld" and "Veronica's Closet" (NBC), "Ally McBeal" (Fox), and "The Drew Carey Show" (ABC), are sexually obsessed. For good measure, there's "Ellen" (ABC), which is homosexually obsessed.

So at 10 p.m. there's nothing, at 9 p.m. next to nothing. What about the 8 p.m. hour? By no means is this a complete wasteland for the family audience. On weekends, CBS shines with "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Touched By an Angel." ABC boasts "Soul Man" and "Boy Meets World." And the part-time networks provide more than their share, with UPN's "Moesha" and "Clueless" and WB's "7th Heaven," "The Smart Guy," and "The Parent 'Hood."

But for every plus there's at least one minus: Fox's steamy "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210"; NBC's "Mad About You" and "NewsRadio"; ABC's "Spin City" and "Dharma and Greg." A new content analysis of family-hour programming indicates that on average between 8 and 9, there's almost one curse word per hour, and more than two sexual references. Again:This is in the former "family hour" alone, not throughout prime time - although those family-hour numbers would have been unthinkable even for 10 o'clock series just a few years ago.

During the so-called family hour, there are 37 shows every week on the networks. Fourteen were rated green, 7 yellow, 16 red. In other words, tuning in at random at 8 p.m., a child has a greater chance of encountering raunch than wholesomeness. And on the whole, out of a total of 74 shows, each network provides about two family series per week. That's it.

The war for positive prime time programming may not be lost, but the pro-family forces are most definitely in retreat.