Photo illustration by Aaron Thorup

"Sex … sex … sex …"


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."

For parents like Allred, the concept of "family friendly" isn't determined by the target audience. She considers the themes, messages, role models and overall influence the show will have on her kids.

For example, Allred has banned Nickelodeon's "Fairly Odd Parents" from her household for its undermining of parents as strong characters and role models.

"The parents are these little dimwits, and the kids keep pulling all of these things over on them," Allred said.

Experts say it's not just parents being portrayed as out-of-the-loop or incompetent. It's adults in general.

"Culturally speaking, we have these male stereotypes that are reinforced in the media — the playboy Charlie Sheen from 'Two and a Half Men,' or the guys from 'Arrested Development' who never developed past college frat days, incapable of holding relationship, like a man-child," said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at the Parents Television Council. "When boys see these as the only male characters on TV, it does reinforce negative patterns of thinking."

When it comes to the decidedly kid- and family-targeted Disney Channel, Bonnett reiterated the need to be clean for kids.

"The flip side of that is that you want to be relevant," said Bonnett, who also addressed the concept of a nuclear or traditional family versus families they often portray in their shows.

"I don't think we'd be doing our job if we only displayed the sort of traditional family on television," Bonnett said. "Our job is to reflect our audience."

ABC Family, a network that carries the family label in its name, is home to "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," a drama about teen pregnancy. The show carries the warning "viewer discretion advised."

"The best way to resonate with your audience is to be authentic," said Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group in a Los Angeles Times article about the show. "And you're only authentic if you are holding up a mirror to your audience and saying, 'I see you.'"

Allred, however, questions whether the depiction of reality is accurate or exaggerated.

"I believe that they are trying to convince teens that that is what they are facing," Allred said, adding that she's well aware that her kids are confronted with sex, swearing and drugs at school and among friends. But she doesn't believe what they actually face comes anywhere near what is depicted.

Accurate or not, it does give parents a reason to talk to their kids about issues like sex and drugs, Allred says.

"It sparks conversation with them," she said. "I know they're going to get it otherwise. I'd rather (talk) than pretend it doesn't exist."

ABC Family representatives did not respond to the Deseret News' request for an interview.

Four years ago, Christopher Gildemeister, a columnist for PTC, criticized the Halloween programming shown on ABC Family.

"Many of those in the entertainment industry think that it is solely the responsibility of parents to monitor their children's TV viewing," Gildemeister wrote. "Most parents would not — and should not have to — rigorously scrutinize every item on the schedule of a self-proclaimed 'Family' network."

But trusting networks to define "family friendly" could be a false sense of security. According to the most recent (2007) of many PTC reports on the television ratings system, networks do in fact rate their own shows, and two-thirds of the shows reviewed (67 percent) lacked at least one content descriptor ("S" for sexual content, "L" for language, etc.).

Cartoons can also be problematic. While it's a medium familiar to children, today's cartoons can be chock-full of adult material.

"For example, you can look at 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad,'" Henson said. "They haven't tried to bill themselves as family shows, but because they're cartoons people think, 'What could be objectionable about Family Guy?' Cartoons can be very deceptive."

Then there is the issue of commercials. A parent who has researched a show and decided it is safe has no guarantee that the advertisements will align with the program.

"Between the fine lines of TV programming lie the oftentimes intrusive and out-of-place commercials," said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media.

A study published by the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found that 13.5 percent of commercials during morning and afternoon programming on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network conveyed negative content, including violence, disturbing behaviors, sexual behavior and negative modeling.

"If it's family entertainment, the entire broadcast should incorporate that," Poll said.

In today's media climate, with the growing list of options and no definitive standard for where the family label belongs, parents bear the ultimate responsibility.

"We used to be able to turn on the TV and watch what was there," Knorr said. "But now there are so many shows and channels, streaming, Internet. … That's why I think it's important to do homework on the show.

"At the end of the day it's about what you think is appropriate, and that's what is family friendly."