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A Step Toward Family Values?

The idea that corporate America is as responsible as anyone for the greatly increased sewage that has become prime time television took some time to sink in, but sink in it has - at least in certain quarters. Hollywood can produce as many raunchy sitcoms and dramas as it likes, but if no one bought time on them, they'd never reach the airwaves.

It's true that some, most notably the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association, have been targeting irresponsible sponsors for a long time. Wildmon's campaigns, like those of all boycotters, are reactive: they find an objectionable series, then they spurn its advertisers. On its own terms, that approach often works quite well, as was the case when Bill Donohue and the Catholic League brought ABC's sneer at traditionalist Catholics, "Nothing Sacred," to its knees.

There are two major drawbacks to boycotts. The first is tactical: A campaign aimed at stopping the actions of one sponsor might succeed against that sponsor but there are hundreds more that could still pick up the slack. It's like fingers in a dike. The second problem is strategic: A boycott turns you into a goalkeeper, so focused on preventing the opposition from scoring that you can't even think about generating offense.

In this context, the only way to put points on the board is by helping to create shows with values countering those of "Nothing Sacred," "Ally McBeal," "Friends," and their ilk. That's where the Family Friendly Programming Forum comes in. The Forum, numbering more than thirty companies, was established almost a year ago "in an effort to encourage more programming for family viewing in the 8-10 p.m. [Eastern and Pacific] time slot."

This is no idle gesture. Some of the biggest advertisers in the business - Procter & Gamble, General Motors, McDonald's, Johnson & Johnson, to name but a few - with combined advertising budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, are members.

On August 11, eleven Forum members announced they were putting their money where their mouths were, providing the WB television network with funding towards the development of "high-quality family friendly prime time television series...for broadcast beginning in the 2000-2001 season."

That could be a hugely significant development. It is the standard line in Hollywood that offensive programming is in vogue because of advertiser pressure; the sponsors want numbers and numbers are generated by titillating product. Not so, the advertisers have responded historically, reversing the equation and maintaining that they sponsored the offensive programming because that's about all there was available.

The argument is now moot. These advertising giants are putting up cold, hard cash to encourage writers to produce high-quality, family-friendly products.

All may not be smooth sailing, however. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition of "family-friendly" is. Let's examine WB president Jamie Kellner's claim, in the press release announcing the development fund, that his network "has, since its inception, prided itself on offering the type of programs that an entire family can enjoy together."

For the WB's first two or three years, family-friendly shows were indeed in the majority. But no longer. Today's WB is, first and foremost, home to "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Felicity," and other teen-oriented dramas whose messages on sexual behavior and parent-child relationships are by no means traditional or heartwarming. The admirable pro-family drama "7th Heaven," the WB's top-rated series, has become almost an anomaly on its network.

I like how the Forum defines "family-friendly" programming: "...movies, series, or informational programming that is relevant and interesting to a broad family audience and contains no elements that the average viewer would find offensive." Elsewhere, the Forum states that such fare would "contain no elements that the average parent would be embarrassed to see with his children in the room." So much for the family-friendliness of "Dawson's Creek" and its storylines advocating teenage homosexuality and student-teacher affairs.

It's cause for some celebration. In a very real sense (as opposed to so much meaningless rhetoric out there) the Forum is dedicated to turning around the rancid state of affairs in the wasteland we call entertainment television. So applause, applause to the members. And if their investment in the WB brings that network back to its roots, applause to Mr. Kellner, too.

Just don't call "Dawson's Creek" family-friendly, OK?