Los Angeles --Once upon a prime time in the Land of Television, there was a place called the Family Viewing Hour.
It was a special place, that 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. hour -- because that's when children were known to be watching. So the networks refrained from airing shows with sex or violence. Instead they filled the time with friendly aliens, like ALF of "ALF"; with loving families, like the Huxtables of "The Cosby Show" and the Seavers of "Growing Pains"; and with lots of kids, like the Tanner twins of "Full House."
Well, things are changing. This season, viewers will notice that the family viewing hour -- which had a commitment to less adult fare -- is little more than a memory. Innocent comic moments, such as Cliff Huxtable's elaborate funeral for daughter Rudy's dead goldfish, are going to seem like something from another planet. The new climate at the 8 p.m. hour is one of sexual punch lines, often told in the language of the locker room.
There are still lots of family sitcoms -- even a few kid-safe 8 p.m. series, such as ABC's "Family Matters" -- but the center of gravity for most has shifted from the living room to the bedroom and what happens there between adults.
No one at the networks denies the change. Even ABC -- which calls itself the family network and this week became the property of Disney, whose very brand identity is family entertainment -- acknowledges it. But there is disagreement about the reasons for the shift and what it says about the texture of our culture and our lives -- especially as it relates to media and raising children.
Is it another case of the coarsening of popular culture by mainstream media? Or is it a new and healthy realism -- television accurately reflecting changes in social reality? The answers to such questions take us to the heart of the debate that's come to be known as the culture wars.
"Well, you know, the word 'coarsening,' I don't know if I quite buy that theory. But I think America is changing, and I think the programming is changing," says Les Moonves, the new president of CBS Entertainment.
"There are a number of 8 o'clock shows that wouldn't have been there before. There are a few that I find terribly objectionable for -- my children to watch. But my 10-year-old daughter watches 'Friends,' and I have no problem with that."
NBC's decision to move "Friends" into the 8 o'clock leadoff spot of its blockbuster Thursday night lineup starting in September is one of the developments often mentioned in connection with the impending death of the Family Viewing Hour.
"Friends" is a smart and funny hit show. But it is also, in NBC's words: "a sophisticated comedy . . . about love, sex, careers and a time in life when everything is possible [for] six friends living in New York."
Should a sophisticated comedy about love and sex be shown when preteens are watching?
Moonves was asked about an episode of "Friends" that involved two unmarried people having sex in an orthodontist's office. How does he explain that comic premise to his daughter?
"I explain to her that, you know, it's comedy, it's life, it's what goes on. You should meet my 10-year-old daughter; she's very precocious," he says jokingly.
Before taking over last month as head of programming at CBS, Moonves ran Warner Bros. Television, which created "Friends" as well as such hits as "ER." Moonves has spent much of his professional life making television shows and films, and he is one of the best. But it's answers like the one he gave about his 10-year-old daughter that conservatives, such as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, point to when they charge that Hollywood is out of step with mainstream values in this country.
The coarsening of society
While Moonves acknowledges some qualms about what's shown network television at 8 p.m., NBC's Don Ohlmeyer does not. As NBC West Coast president, Ohlmeyer is most responsible for scheduling "Friends" at 8 p.m., along with other adult sitcoms, such as "Mad About You," which moves from 8 p.m. Thursday to 8 p.m. Sunday this fall.
"It is not the role of network television to program for the children of America," Ohlmeyer says. "I don't think that you want your choices for what you can see on commercial broadcasting constrained by what's appropriate for a 10-year-old to see."
This does not make him or NBC irresponsible broadcasters, he says.
"Our whole society's getting a little more coarse . . . and I don't think that's television. I think that's television reflecting society," he notes.
"I think we basically take our role as broadcasters very seriously," he adds. "And maybe we need to review history a little here. The family hour was drawn up by the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and was then declared by the courts to be unconstitutional and restraint of trade. So, maybe the concept of a family hour that exists in people's memories never really existed."
A quick review of the history of the Family Viewing Hour reveals something about the changes that have occurred in broadcasting standards over the years.
The concept was born in 1974. Richard Wiley, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was under pressure from Congress to issue regulations that would limit the language, sexual situations and depictions of violence shown in early prime time (8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday evenings), when children are watching.
Fearing such regulations, Arthur Taylor, then president of CBS, said his network would consider those time periods a family hour, starting in the fall of 1975. When NBC and ABC quickly followed suit, the entire industry signed on and made it part of the NAB code. The impact was immediate, as such adult shows as CBS' "All in the Family" were moved out of their 8 p.m. time slots.
But in November 1976, a federal judge ruled that the policy was illegal, saying Wiley essentially had coerced the networks into agreeing to the family hour through the threat of regulations, thereby violating their guarantee of free speech.
Despite the ruling, the networks voluntarily continued the family viewing hour, refraining from scheduling shows with adult content.
Even with the climate of full-throttle deregulation in the 1980s, the pledge held -- until 1983, when NBC scheduled "The A-Team," a violent action-adventure series, at 8 p.m. There was considerable controversy about that move, especially when one of the characters, Mr. T, became a hero to young children.
But a more serious protest came in 1987 when Fox put "Married . . . With Children" on at 8:30 p.m. A mother in Michigan, Terry Rakolta, objected to her children seeing at that hour an episode that included the suggestion of frontal nudity and started an advertiser boycott that led Fox to move the show to 9 p.m.
The Fox effect
Fox has been a key player in the erosion of family-hour standards in recent years, according to NBC's Ohlmeyer.
"Maybe we do need to adjust ourselves to be more in tune with the public," Ohlmeyer says, "but you can't paint everybody with the same brush. Our standards are very much different than Fox's. . . . We don't have a 'Melrose Place' on at 8. . . . Our standards are very similar to ABC's."
There are differences among the networks when it comes to the family hour, with ABC at one end of the scale and Fox at the other. Fox is the first station to offer young adults an alternative to kid-driven programs at 8 p.m. But the networks are all moving toward more adult fare now.
Like "Friends," NBC's "Mad About You" is a terrific sitcom. But should it ever have been on at 8 p.m.? Remember the premise of the pilot -- newlyweds Jamie and Paul having sex on the kitchen table while their apartment was filled with guests in the next room?
"Wings," another NBC 8 o'clock show, recently aired an episode that discussed premature ejaculation. Jokes about sex organs are a staple of "Friends."
This fall on CBS, in addition to the very adult "Cybill" at 8 p.m. Sundays, the network will air a new sitcom at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, "Bless This House," starring Andrew Clay and Cathy Moriarty. The pilot opens with Moriarty's character talking about a friend -- "who made it right on the coffeetable" with her boyfriend. In the same scene, she upbraids her 12-year-old daughter for blocking access to the bathroom by standing in front of the mirror all day "staring at your little hooters."
Bruce Helford, the series' executive producer, defended the scene by saying: "I'm not a person who believes TV is there to teach and educate. We are definitely going to be grittier and edgier. But that's the honesty of what American life is really like . . . and we have to reflect it."
ABC in the spotlight
Ultimately, the most important network to watch in terms of gauging the future of family-hour fare is ABC. By far, it has been the most conscientious about limiting sex, violence and harsh language in the early evening, while still doing quality comedy and drama (i.e., "The Wonder Years" and "Life Goes On").
But it has also recently canceled two traditional family-hour series, "Full House" and "Sister, Sister," and will replace one of them with "Roseanne" at 8 Tuesday nights this fall.
"Roseanne is an excellent series, but should it be on at 8 o'clock?" asks Pam Landis, of Parent Action of Maryland -- a statewide grass-roots group of 7,000 parents concerned with television and its effects on children. "Some episodes are just not what I want my 10-year-old to see."
Landis cited a recent episode with guest star Traci Lords, in which Roseanne comments about the young woman's breasts by saying, "Gee, even I'd get a woodie looking at those."
"I don't think that's the way I want my child introduced to a discussion of sexuality," Landis says. ABC's handling of the Family Viewing Hour in coming months should provide a window on the direction Disney will take as a television network when it comes to kids. While the Disney franchise is built on being family-friendly, chairman Michael Eisner is the executive who took Disney Films out of the red with such adult fare as "Pulp Fiction." ABC executives say that same kind of bottom-line thinking is behind their move to an adult-orientation at 8 p.m.
"Yes, clearly there aren't shows like 'Full House' and even 'Growing Pains' [on ABC this season]," ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert said. "But it was proving extremely difficult to get the parents to sit down with their kids, because there were alternatives [on other networks] that were designed more for those adults.
"We are a victim of the multi-set household, where if mom and dad want to let little Jimmy stay in the living room and watch 'Full House,' they can go in their bedroom and watch 'Wings' [on NBC]. Well, we just don't have much of an intention of allowing that to continue -- where we become an electronic baby sitter, while [losing] the adults, who we need to deliver to our advertising people to pay all of our salaries. . . . We simply have to get that adult audience."
. . . And, then, one day, the big, bad bottom line came to that place called the Family Viewing Hour in the Land of Television. And never more were the likes of ALF, Cousin Balki and Uncle Jesse, Mrs. Garrett, Blossom, the Huxtables or the Keatons to be seen.