JESSELL AT LARGE

Nets May Get Beat At Their Own Family Game

While the broadcast networks have never been comfortable with their role as family programmers, it's still their special niche.That's why they need to keep an eye on Netflix and its plan to expand into broadcast-inspired family programming.

Broadcasters are in imminent danger of being outflanked.

A story in The New York Times business section this morning details Netflix’s plans to offer family-friendly programming to its burgeoning ranks of subscribers.

Shows that the whole family can watch together? Why, that’s broadcasters’ turf. An upstart like Netflix has no business there. Yet, here it comes.

Today, Netflix releases 13-episodes of Fuller House, a revival of Full House, a hit ABC series starring Bob Saget and the Olsen twins that ran from September 1987 to May 1995.

And that’s just for starters. According to the Times, Netflix is cooking up at least six additional “family-oriented” shows for release by the end of 2017, including a sequel to Gilmore Girls, which run on the WB and CW for seven seasons starting in 2000.

What’s interesting about the Netflix initiative is that the impetus came from the service’s own data of what people were watching. And what they were watching in surprising numbers, Cindy Holland, VP of original content, told the Times, were family movies like The Karate Kid and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Netflix is merely creating the supply to meet the demand.

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Frankly, the broadcasters have left their flank exposed. Some of their primetime sitcoms have gotten raunchy, making it increasingly difficult for parents to find suitable program or to trust the kids with the remotes.

Fox is probably to blame for the trajectory as it tried to differentiate itself in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Seeing its success, the Big Three followed to one extent or another. CBS, for instance, strained the bounds of good taste for 12 seasons with Two and a Half Men and has now moved on to Two Broke Girls.

I have two daughters born in the mid-1980s, and I can remember watching and enjoying with them ABC’s TGIF lineup on Friday nights. Family Matters; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; and Boy Meets World stick out in my memory. Full House was for a time part of the mix.

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There is nothing like that on any broadcast networks today. Parents of tweens have to carefully pick through the program schedules to find acceptable shows. With a DVR, they can assemble their own TGIF block. But not every home has a DVR, of course.

But broadcasting is still a relatively safe place for the family. Cable offers some good stuff for the family, but the medium is a minefield. Some of the reality fare on basic is atrocious, unfit for any sentient being, let alone the impressionable young. Some of the programming aimed at teenagers is flat-out irresponsible. And some of the dramas give too much free rein to the sex and violence.

It’s probably also not a good idea to let the 12-year-old loose on Netflix and Amazon without a guardian.

But being a relatively safe place for the family is not the same as being a good place for the family.

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I know that broadcasters have never been comfortable with their traditional role of family programmers. All the constraints imposed by mass advertisers and government regulators have made it tough to compete with cable and the streamers for Emmys in the drama categories.

But it’s kind of broadcasters’ thing. The business depends on their ability to cobble together the largest possible audience — what’s still called a mass audience, but really isn’t — for the sake of advertisers who pay most of the bills.

I got into this with NBC programming chief Bob Greenblatt in a 2014. He understands the constraints of broadcast TV and is OK with them.

“You just need to be more mindful of language and subject matter, and what certain characters do because the entire country — in spite of the fact that we live in a very liberal business — does not want to see lots of sexuality,” he told me.

So, the networks and their affiliates should embrace their special role in TV and watch Netflix’s experiment in nostalgia-driven family programming closely. To me, it’s a challenge.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back some of the old gang of this or that show to rally the whole family in the living room once again.

I understand that Melissa Joan Hart is game for a Sabrina reboot.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (5)

Leave a Reply

Gregg Palermo says:

February 27, 2016 at 10:17 am

Worrying about what a 12-year-old sees on television is so last century. Have you heard of the Internet? Kids wi-fi enabled screens work perfectly fine in public wi-fi spaces, few of which have site restrictions. The world is a potentially a lewd place 24/7, but some parents pretend it’s still the 1980s and that they can keep their kids in a bubble.

Linda Stewart says:

February 27, 2016 at 6:53 pm

How many genres are broadcasters to concede to other media? Eventually, there will be none left.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 28, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Those who seem to want to program like it’s 1980…..with very few cable channels – 36 on the most advanced system – and Manhattan not even wired – will die. OTA Broadcasting is no longer a one size fits all medium. Trying to approach it as such is death. Witness Paxson trying to do what you wanted to do. Your teens would revolt and hate you even worse if you forced them to watch a remake of Sabrina. There is a reason the Friday HUT levels are so low as well. Program like its 2016 – not 1980.

Teri Keene says:

February 28, 2016 at 9:39 pm

Blame Madison Ave. All they want is the 18-49 demo, and anything older/younger is considered a poison.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    March 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

    TV used to deliver all the demos with lack of competition. Now with “500” channels as well as OTT, one cannot blame Madison Avenue. TV had to pick a lane and going where the money is was the smart move.


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