Might an hour of wholesome TV content that offered hit shows like “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons” in a bygone era return to entertain today’s growing family viewership of network television?
That’s what the Parents Television Council is calling for, saying that families stuck at home during the pandemic have migrated back to “linear TV” (read, not Netflix), only to find more violent and sexually graphic shows.
“It’s really unfortunately that what once was a time without having to lunge for the remote to change the channel has gone,” council President Tim Winter said.
Previously, when his group had campaigned for the return of the “family hour,” network executives told him that families watch television differently today. “But guess what? That’s exactly how they’re doing it right now,” Mr. Winter said.
Last week, the Parents Television Council wrote a letter to the heads of CBS, Fox, NBCUniversal, Disney Television & ABC Entertainment, and The CW Television Network calling on them to “consider the immediate restoration of the ‘Family Hour’” to their nightly schedules.
The original 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. TV oasis was mandated by the Federal Communications Commission and lasted only two seasons, from 1975 to 1976. A federal judge in Los Angeles struck down the “family viewing hour” as a violation of broadcasters’ free speech.
“The plaintiffs have evidenced a successful attempt by the F.C.C. to pressure the networks into adapting a programming policy they did not wish to adopt,” Judge Warren J. Ferguson wrote in 1976.
But the networks voluntarily committed themselves to airing programs devoid of gratuitous violence and sex throughout the late 1980s, when the upstart Fox network arrived with edgier content. By the mid-1990s, The Los Angeles Times reported that “racy programming,” including CBS’ “Cybill” and NBC’s “Friends,” had invaded the family hour.
Network television viewership has steadily declined, with viewers migrating to Netflix, Hulu and streaming services as well as cable outlets like HBO and HGTV. But under stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of the coronavirus, viewers have returned to network TV. Since early March, viewership for the five networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW) has grown by 7%.
“The upward trend in viewing is even more notable for the fact that this time of year, linear ratings tend to start going down,” wrote Rick Porter, ratings guru for The Hollywood Reporter.
While Americans are tuning into news programs (CBS’ “60 Minutes” grew by 2 million viewers up to 10.62 million since before March 9) and doctor dramas (NBC’s “Chicago Med” grew from 8.09 million to 9.39 million viewers during the same period), a spate of family friendly specials are coming viewers’ way.
Last Friday, NBCUniversal aired “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” on three of its channels (USA, SyFy and Telemundo). Next month, CBS will air “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Forrest Gump.”
“We know that families across the country are looking for activities they can enjoy together, from board games to puzzles to movies,” said Rick Gomez, chief marketing, digital and strategy officer for retail giant Target, which is sponsoring NBCUniversal’s airing of films with limited commercial interruption. “Stay in Theater Family Movie Nights provides them with another option as we all do our part to stay home and stay safe.”
Still, even Mr. Winter acknowledges that getting the networks to restore the “Family Viewing Hour” will be a long shot. But he hopes the networks follow NBC’s lead in pushing shows appropriate for audiences of all ages.