The Rise of "Family-Friendly" TV

An advertiser-advocated, "family-friendly" TV show manages its way into a network's fall lineup

By Published on .

An advertiser-advocated, "family-friendly" TV show manages its way into a network's fall lineup.

Andrea Alstrup turned her disappointment into a rallying cry. Frustrated that there weren't enough TV shows that she could comfortably watch with her husband and daughter, she did what any other mother and wife (and corporate vice president of marketing for Johnson & Johnson) would do: She gathered a handful of colleagues from some of the nation's largest companies and founded the Family Friendly Programming Forum (FFPF).

Today, the group counts Coca-Cola, Ford, and Procter & Gamble among its 41 members. The companies, some of the nation's largest advertisers, share a common concern about the dwindling availability of "family-friendly" programming. In recent years, FFPF has begun to encourage networks to produce more family shows. The group has funded college scholarships, and this month will host the second annual Family Program Awards. But its biggest triumph to date will take place this fall, when the WB Network televises Gilmore Girls, a show about a single 32-year-old mother and the relationship she has with her 16-year-old daughter.

The Gilmore Girls is the first advertiser-advocated show. Last June, a subset of FFPF's 41 members put up a million dollars to fund "family-friendly" script development at the WB. Six scripts andthree pilots later, Gilmore Girls finally found its way onto the network's Thursday night schedule. The Forum is also shopping around to other networks another program called Finally Home as a possible midseason replacement. "As time went on, we were finding that every year the supply of programs that we didn't have to think twice about got less and less and less," says Bob Wehling, P&G's global marketing officer. "P&G has over a couple hundred brands, a number of which I would call `family brands,' like Tide and Crest that have become part of American households. We want to put commercials for those brands in a positive environment, to the degree that's possible, and we have always wanted to have at least a portion of our commercials in programming that the entire family, or multigenerational household, can watch together."

Creating a place where families could go when they want to watch television together was the reason behind Odyssey Network, a year-old cable channel that currently reaches 28 million homes. And advertisers followed. A list of companies advertising on Odyssey bares a striking resemblance to the membership roster of FFPF.

But even Odyssey can't guarantee to advertisers that families are actually watching its programs - during "prime family time" (5:30 to 9:00 p.m.) the network airs reruns of The Muppet Show, Alf, Avonlea and Snowy River - together. "The chance that you'll find an entire family gathered together in one room, at one time, watching one show, is slim," admits Susan Frank, general manager and executive vice president of the network. What little solace Frank can offer includes the fact that the number of people viewing per household for Odyssey is 1.4 versus the national average of 1.3.

So if the whole family isn't necessarily watching these shows, who tunes into programs stamped with the "family-friendly" seal of approval? The folks at market research firm, Mediamark Research, Inc. (MRI), provided us with a profile of people who watch 7th Heaven, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Touched by an Angel, three shows that received acclaim at last year's Family Program Award show.

The Mediamark report reveals that while each of these programs have their own unique demographic profile, they share plenty of common ground. For instance, all three shows skew high for women, parents, and blacks (Sabrina and 7th Heaven's audiences also have higher than average concentrations of Spanish speakers). When it comes to education and household income, 53 percent of the three shows' regular viewers have a high school education or less, and fewer than 20 percent bring home $75,000 or more a year. As far as age is concerned, Sabrina and 7th Heaven are more popular among the 18-to-49 set, whereas Touched by an Angel viewers tend to be aged 50 and older.

Why do marketers court the family-friendly set? According to MRI, family-friendly viewers are more likely to use products made by these advertisers. They're also more likely to complain when they disapprove of a company's actions. For example, viewers of 7th Heaven are 185 percent more likely to use J&J's Clean & Clear skincare line. Sabrina and Touched by an Angel also index high for Clean & Clear. Similar results were found for Band-Aid, Tylenol, and Stayfree, other leading J&J brands, as well as P&G products such as Crest, Tide, Bounty, and Jif.

According to Simmons Market Research Bureau, viewers of the Odyssey Network, the Fox Family Channel, Sabrina, and Touched by an Angel are all more likely than average to have written a letter to a company about a product. They are also more likely to have written a letter to an elected official or to a TV or radio station. Randall Murphree, editor of the American Family Association Journal says he encourages readers of his publication to contact advertisers when they are unhappy with the content of a particular television show. "[Advertisers] are generally responsive to phone calls, but we've also found success through boycotts when necessary," Murphree says.

Yet even advertisers who take pains to be family-friendly can incur the wrath of its best customers. P&G recently dealt with such a backlash from pro-family groups when it backed away from sponsoring an upcoming TV show hosted by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a controversial radio host known for her conservative views on homosexuality. Furor over Schlessinger's remarks recently led P&G to pull out of sponsoring Schlessinger's new TV show - a move that didn't sit well with family-friendly groups. Several pro-family organizations, including Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, have threatened to boycott P&G if the company does not reconsider. (For its part, P&G stands behind its action.) "This is definitely a case where they disagree with our decision, but we are going to move on and continue to fund the creation of more `family-friendly' shows," says Gretchen Briscoe, a P&G spokesperson.

So while FFPF member-companies might claim that membership has its privileges, they also realize every rose has its thorn.

Most Popular