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Family? Valueless.

With more kids watching cable, the networks aren't targeting the family audience anymore.

June 14, 1998|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

At his first meeting with reporters after being named president of CBS Entertainment in 1995, Leslie Moonves was asked whether he'd be comfortable with his 12-year-old daughter watching a show in which a couple had sex in a dentist's chair--a gag depicted on NBC's "Friends."

Moonves fidgeted a bit before saying the scene was handled tastefully, when he might have ducked the question by responding that it was moot: If she's like most kids, his daughter doesn't watch NBC at 8 p.m.--or, depending on the night, any other broadcaster.

Although some parents' advocates and elected officials continue pushing to reinstate the so-called family viewing hour--a designated haven of programming acceptable for children in prime-time's first hour--the broadcast networks' lineups for next season offer relatively little programming meant to attract children, who increasingly get their entertainment elsewhere.

That shift poses a chicken-and-egg riddle: Have kids fled the major networks because they scheduled such shows as "Friends" and "Melrose Place" at 8 p.m., as opposed to programs designed for family viewing; or were the networks inevitably going to lose youngsters to videos, computers and cable channels that court them throughout the day?

Whatever the reason, less than half the network series scheduled between 8 and 9 p.m. next fall contain elements traditionally viewed as being geared to children.

NBC--the No. 1 network in ratings and profits--actually runs last among the major networks in children's viewing during the family hour, and its revised lineup for next season appears even less inviting to kids, including at least two editions of the newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" at 8 p.m., plus the sitcoms "Suddenly Susan," "Mad About You" and "Friends."

Then again, NBC--the network that once defined programming that appeals to all ages with "The Cosby Show"--has made clear that including children in its audience is not a priority. In its press releases, NBC almost exclusively trumpets its results in terms of viewers age 18 to 54--the broad demographic swath used as the basis for selling most advertising time.

"They're really going for the money . . . [by] looking at it completely as a business," says Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council, a group lobbying to restore traditional values through the family hour. "I think they're totally handing that [children's] audience over to Nickelodeon."

NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer maintains that the thriving presence of Nickelodeon and other like-themed channels underscores that the family hour is an outdated notion, "left over from 30 years ago, when there were only 3, 4 or 5 choices for people to watch."

Because three networks monopolized TV viewing in that era, programmers assumed that children controlled the dial at 8 p.m., and parents watched with them. Networks tried to program for the entire family to open the night with series such as "Lost in Space," "The Partridge Family" and "The Brady Bunch," then ran more adult series later, when younger kids were apt to be in bed.

Nevertheless, the idea behind codifying such guidelines has always incited controversy. Introduced by the National Assn. of Broadcasters in 1975, the "family viewing hour" stated that "entertainment programming inappropriate for viewing by a general family audience should not be broadcast" in the first hour of prime time.

Producer Norman Lear--whose groundbreaking comedy "All in the Family" played a part in inspiring network critics to call for such restrictions--joined with the Writers Guild of America to file a lawsuit challenging the guidelines on grounds that the government unconstitutionally foisted them on the television industry. In 1976, a federal court ruled in Lear's favor, and the official "family hour" ended--although the networks continued to adhere to it informally for years.

There have been ongoing efforts ever since to revive the family hour as a policy, including proposed legislation. A TV ratings system, introduced last year under renewed government pressure, labels programs to alert parents as to their content but doesn't restrict what can air in a given hour.

Some TV executives maintain that even talking about a "family viewing hour" today fails to address the way technology and lifestyles have changed, and how broadcasters must adapt to that reality.

Roughly 85% of homes now have at least one VCR, and three-quarters possess cable as well as two or more TV sets. As a result, children can easily watch videos or channels dedicated to them--such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel--while their parents view what they want in another room.

With channels catering to narrow audience segments, NBC maintains that it's impractical for broadcasters to focus on appealing to children--who account for less than 15% of the potential viewing audience--if it means alienating adults.

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