A family watching a television program in which an elephant performs tricks… (Harold Lambert / Getty Images )
This season "Terra Nova" has exhumed the Cretaceous period, but can it also help resurrect another block of time that would seem equally challenging to revive — the family viewing hour?
The heavily promoted prime-time show, dubbed internally at Fox as "Little House on the Prairie with Dinosaurs," is an eco-action-adventure series built around a family of five that travels back 85 million years to give humans a second chance at caring for Earth. The ratings have been solid for the show, which counts Steven Spielberg and former News Corp. President Peter Chernin among its many executive producers, but — so far — are hardly enough to prompt a wave of copycat family-friendly scripted programming.
Instead, much of the fall season buzz has centered on the parade of wise-cracking women as with "2 Broke Girls," "New Girl" and "Whitney" or lackluster revamps of distinctive favorites such as the now-canceled "Charlie's Angels" and the struggling "Prime Suspect." Gone are the days in prime-time TV when shows like "The Cosby Show," "Home Improvement," "7th Heaven" or "The Bernie Mac Show" unabashedly courted a family audience.
Indeed, with the notable exception of "Terra Nova" and a handful of other programs, scripted shows in prime-time about families — for families — are on the verge of being as out of place as a T. Rex in the current Cenozoic era. The scarcity largely reflects societal and pop culture shifts over the past decades, but critics decry the conspicious absence of scripted family shows, especially in a seemingly boundless programming universe.
"It's very difficult to program a show with broad-based family appeal," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media in New York. "The notion that families are sitting in the living room and watching the same show together is more and more scarce. Shows have become so niche and hyper-targeted, so it's just hard to put on a show that will appeal to all age groups and genders."
Part of the reason families don't sit passively before the almighty television anymore is that the digital age has produced so many entertainment alternatives — iPods, video games, social media, not to mention an explosion of diverse programming on cable. As the TV audience has scattered, programming has become more targeted to the individual viewer, not groups.
Also, the family unit itself has markedly changed since the mid-1970s, when the Federal Communications Commission pressured the top three networks to institute a "family viewing hour" from 8 to 9 p.m. Over the last four decades — as divorce and single parenthood climbed sharply — the percentage of children younger than 18 living in a two-parent household slid from roughly 85% to 67%, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the family viewing hour policy, born from protests about the rising tide of sex and violence on TV in the early 1970s, was scrapped by the courts within a couple of years, leaving the networks to pledge their best effort in maintaining suitable family programming in that prime-time hour.
The dearth of family programming today can also be traced to a longstanding tension between the major networks and the creative community, which has gravitated toward darker and edgier material, particularly as cable became more of a force in Hollywood, said TV historian Tim Brooks. As shows have confronted more mature content, such as on HBO's mobster-filled "Boardwalk Empire" or AMC's meth-dealing chemistry teacher in "Breaking Bad," adults have followed.
And even current series that would seem family friendly — "Modern Family," "Glee" and Tim Allen's new "Last Man Standing" — juggle often sexually charged themes and language that many deem inappropriate for children.
"It's like someone put red pepper flakes in the Jell-O pudding," said Bill Cosby, the former Jell-O promoter and star of "The Cosby Show," whose success brought a flood of new family programming in the 1980s.
One of the few veteran prime-time series that appears specifically targeted for families is ABC's "The Middle," starring Patricia Heaton. The critically acclaimed show about a lower middle-class Midwestern family has been a decent ratings performer — last week it drew 8.8 million viewers, which put it in 36th place.
Brooks said there has been an evolution away from the scripted shows to reality programming such as "American Idol," which are now being touted as family fare: "It's the latest wave of reality that is filling the void. You see mostly clean-cut kids trying very hard. And audiences don't really make a distinction between a scripted show and a reality show."
But even those reality shows contain moments that might raise the ire of some parents. The pilot of Fox's "The X Factor" featured a contestant who removed his pants during his performance, which disgusted judge Paula Abdul so much she left the arena (the man's offending parts on the show were covered up).