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Teen sex in 'Secret Life' births debate over ABC Family values

Disney executives say the drama and similar shows are in sync with the realities facing many American families. Critics say such programs don't belong on a channel with the word 'family' in its name.

February 01, 2009|Meg James and Dawn C. Chmielewski

Sweeney, who had been running the Disney Channel, was put in charge of ABC Family in 2003. Her first priority was to differentiate the channel's programming so that ABC Family and Disney Channel each had a defined audience and didn't poach the other's viewers. She reached outside the close-knit Disney organization to find a day-to-day manager of ABC Family and picked Lee, a former executive at BBC America, which gained attention for importing the British version of NBC's popular series "The Office."

Although ABC Family's staple reruns of teen dramas "Gilmore Girls" and "7th Heaven" remained popular with viewers, Lee was intrigued by the study commissioned by the channel that showed Millennials were more optimistic and less cynical than teens who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.

That study led ABC Family to develop dramas and comedies that would appeal to the present-day teen audience by weaving in messages of hope and acceptance.

"Paul saw that here was an opportunity with [for] a channel named 'Family,' that 'family' was not a bad word with these young people," said Jack MacKenzie, an executive with strategic media firm Frank N. Magid Associates who conducted the study for Disney.

Disney executives defend their soap-opera-like shows for young adults. They say classic feel-good shows such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "The Mickey Mouse Club," with their saccharine sprinkles to life's problems, would lack credibility in today's world.

"We've continued to evolve our [stories] because we want to maintain a strong connection with our audience," Sweeney said.

ABC Family executives, aware of the potential controversy that "Secret Life" would create, toned down the program's original title, "Sex Lives of the American Teenager." Each episode ends with an advisory that encourages parents and children to talk before it's too late.

Viewers who think "Secret Life" is simply a bid for higher ratings are misinterpreting the show, said Brenda Hampton, who created the series. She said she has long wanted to tell a story about how a "nice" girl -- a so-called band geek -- would cope with the consequences of having sex with a boy she barely knew. "People feel that this could have happened to them or the people they know," she said.

Big-name advertisers, including cautious marketers such as Procter & Gamble and Target, are embracing ABC Family's edgier approach.

"I'd love for these shows to be 'Little House on the Prairie,' but that isn't going to happen. Family programming is all about bringing families together to watch shows so that they can dialogue about these sensitive topics," said Pat Gentile, a top ad buyer for P&G and co-chairman of the Alliance for Family Entertainment, a coalition of major advertisers that advocates for family programming.

Families may be talking about ABC Family's programming. But that doesn't mean they are in agreement about it.

After screening several episodes of "Secret Life," Alden, the Pasadena mother, eventually relented and let her twin daughters watch the show because it gave her an opening to discuss awkward topics with them. Her two teens, however, have opposing views of the show.

Katie is a big fan and analyzes episodes with friends. She thinks it's all about the sex lives of the characters.

"It kind of seems as if they are promoting sex," Katie said.

No, it's not, said Annie, her sister. "The main character, her world is turned upside down because she's having a child. . . . More than anything, the show is preaching abstinence."



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