The 'family' label on TV: What does it mean these days?

By Hillary Bowler and Caitlin Orton

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 27 2011 6:27 p.m. MDT

Photo illustration by Aaron Thorup

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"Sex … sex … sex …"

Shocked?

Melinda Allred was when the Syracuse mother of five sat down to teach piano lessons one afternoon. She kept hearing the word "sex" from the room where her kids, all under the age of 10 at the time, were watching television.

"It startled me so much that I literally jumped up from the piano," said Allred, who ran into the room to find that "sex" had been repeated over and over in a commercial that aired during a show she thought was safe for her kids.

Most parents care about the media content their kids consume and supervise what their children view, according to a 2007 survey. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that more than 74 percent of parents named inappropriate media content as a "top" or "big" concern. At the time, 65 percent of parents said they closely monitored their children's media use. Eighteen percent said they "should do more," while 16 percent said they didn't need to monitor their kids' media use.

In today's media landscape, however, the "family" label can be fixed to all kinds of programming, from innocent cartoons to gritty dramas. The word would appear to be a safeguard, but it can also be relative, varying among viewers and networks. Even then, the label doesn't carry over to the commercials shown during a program.

It's parents who must ultimately decide where the "family" label applies.

Tara Poll believes that a "family friendly" show should provide an umbrella of safety so the age of the audience doesn't determine what's appropriate.

"To me, (family friendly) means my whole family, no matter what age anybody is, can sit down and watch a program together and there's not even a moment of concern," said Poll, a mother of four, also from Syracuse.

There is plenty of programming in catch-all genres that appeal to viewers from age 2 to 70. Just because kids like a show doesn't mean it has to be boring for adults, says Adam Bonnett, senior vice president of original series at Disney Channel.

"When I think about creating family-friendly entertainment, it's really about layering a show … so that the humor works on many different levels," Bonnett said. He referred to Disney/Pixar films like "Up" or "Monsters, Inc." as good examples of layering, where writers use subtle references, subject matter beyond the understanding of young children or humor just sophisticated enough to make the parent laugh while keeping kids interested.

But for some networks, "family" entertainment isn't necessarily for everyone.

Lifetime, which targets women 18 and older, bases its criteria on familial relationships and themes, not age.

In July, Lifetime launched a program called "Against the Wall" which was labeled as a "family drama."

"Family dramas involve core familial relationships in the center. It's a police drama, but the complexity of the family relationships is what drew us to the project," said Rob Sherno, executive vice president of programming at Lifetime. "The mother-daughter relationship, the father-daughter relationship in 'Against The Wall' are some of the best parts of it."

But having "family" in the description doesn't put the show in the same category as Disney's "Wizards of Waverly Place." For example, the main character in "Against the Wall" often turns to casual sex in times of stress. There are two sex scenes in the pilot alone.

"There's a difference between family-targeted programming and shows that are about family issues," said Sherno, suggesting that "Against the Wall" may appeal to more mature families. "Family-targeted shows in our industry are trying to include little children and parents (in the audience), but 'Against the Wall' is a drama that deals with family."

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