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Hope for Family-friendly TV

By Mary Jo Dangel

Over 40 major advertisers are working with the networks to bring more and better family programming to your TV.

Q U I C K S C A N

Family Television Awards

Photo courtesy of Association of National Advertisers

 

If you are embarrassed while watching television with your family because of the increased amount of sex and violence, help is on the way from a group of advertisers. They’ve listened to your concerns, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to find shows where they want to place ads: programs that are consistent within the guidelines of their companies, programs that won’t offend their consumers, programs they can be proud to sponsor, programs they want to watch with their own families.

Family Friendly Programming Forum, a group of over 40 major advertisers, was cofounded by Robert L. Wehling, global marketing and government relations officer at The Procter & Gamble Company, and Andrea Alstrup, vice president of advertising at Johnson & Johnson. Fans of WB’s Gilmore Girls can thank the Forum, which financed the script development.


Family Is Priority

From his office in Cincinnati, Ohio, Bob Wehling explained to St. Anthony Messenger last spring why he and other advertisers are committed to this project, what they’re doing and what viewers can do. Wehling, who began his career with Procter & Gamble in 1960 and will retire this month, is ranked number one on Advertising Age’s list of the 50 most powerful marketing people in the year 2000. His numerous awards include recognition from Unda-USA, the national Catholic association for radio and television communicators (for leadership in marketing and for his work as cofounder of the Family Friendly Programming Forum). Recently, he participated in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s “Sex on TV” panel discussion, which reported the obvious last February: The sexual content on TV has increased in recent years.

Wehling explains why most of his activities focus on education and children. “I’m not doing anything a lot of other people wouldn’t do if they had the same opportunities. I’m just thankful that I was given six wonderful daughters, that they turned out healthy, that they got a good education and that they got off to a good start in life. I feel I have an obligation to do what I can to see that as many kids as possible have those kinds of opportunities. There’s nothing noble about it; I just feel that’s my job.”

Bob and Carolyn Wehling have been married for over 40 years. They raised their family in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming and then moved to a farm in Augusta, a small river town in Kentucky where Carolyn raises Tennessee walking horses and other animals including llamas and donkeys. “Our grandchildren absolutely love it,” he says of the farm.

He explains his order of priorities: “Through my whole career, I’ve always scheduled my work around my children’s activities.” When his children were younger, he would mark their athletic and school events on his calendar and then schedule business commitments around those dates. “I’ve always thought that the most important thing was to have your priorities right and make sure that your family is your first priority.”


Concerned Advertisers

Wehling notes that the term soap opera was coined because Procter & Gamble’s Oxydol laundry detergent sponsored Ma Perkins on radio in the 1930s. Today the company is one of the world’s largest advertisers. But finding the right TV shows to sponsor isn’t easy, he explains.

As a family man and as an advertiser, Wehling has observed an escalation of sex, innuendo and violence on prime-time TV in recent years. Quite often, a program is “generally O.K. except for one scene or a couple of lines that are thrown in” that make the sponsor feel uncomfortable. “If we held to a rigid standard, and we didn’t look at the gray areas, and we didn’t look at the total context of a program, we wouldn’t have enough shows on broadcast television to help our brands reach their target audience.”

In 1998, Bob Wehling heard Andrea Alstrup give a speech at an Advertising Women of New York function. That speech sparked the formation of the Family Friendly Programming Forum.

Alstrup recalls her message in a 31-page magazine supplement produced by Adweek about the Forum: “I described the kind of programming that kids had access to when channel-surfing and asked the audience to think about the kind of stress that exposure to sex and violence could represent for kids. Then I said that, as a mother myself, I am embarrassed and outraged by a lot of what I see in the media. I pointed out that the environment in which a message runs is part of the message.” Then she announced that Johnson & Johnson would underwrite the creation of a group effort.

“She was saying exactly the same things we were saying,” recalls Wehling. He knew from experience that when individual companies met with network executives to request the types of programs that consumers said they wanted, nothing much happened. But a group effort could be more influential. Thus, he spoke to Alstrup after her talk, and they each invited some other advertisers to a meeting.

That first meeting attracted 10 advertisers, recalls Wehling. When they had a difficult time defining family—whether it was two parents with two or more kids, divorced parents, multigenerational and so on—he realized this could be a sticking point. He suggested that they ask the networks for more choices that multiple generations (children, parents and grandparents) would enjoy watching together. “Each of them would find it entertaining and relevant.”

This was agreeable, and the group decided to start with the 8 p.m. time period, once known as “the family hour.” By the end of 1999, 36 companies had joined Family Friendly Programming Forum.

“We have most of the top advertisers in the country involved,” explains Wehling. Some who joined early include Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM, Nestlé, Sears and Wendy’s. (A complete list of members and additional information are available at the Forum’s Web site, www.familyprogramawards.com.)

The Forum’s Web site says, “As marketers, we are concerned about the dwindling availability of family-friendly television programs during prime viewing hours—the environment in which we want to advertise. As members of American society, we are concerned about the TV imagery, role models, themes and language to which our young people are exposed.”


Long-term Plans

The Forum underwrites the development of new, family-friendly scripts but does not participate in the script-approval process. If the script is made into a pilot, the network reimburses the Forum. WB was the first network to participate in this initiative. Jamie Kellner, CEO of WB, says on the Forum’s Web site that the first year “yielded a number of high-quality, family-friendly scripts, three pilots and one series, Gilmore Girls, which television critics call the best new show of the season.” And this season WB will air another series resulting from the Forum’s script-development fund: Raising Dad, a new comedy starring Bob Saget as a widower raising daughters.

ABC and CBS joined the script-development initiative last fall, and then NBC came on board in the spring. “NBC aims to serve a broad, diverse audience with a variety of programming, including high-quality shows that the whole family can enjoy together,” says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, on the Forum’s Web site.

Regarding long-term goals, Bob Wehling tells St. Anthony Messenger that he would like to see two new series each fall, with enough surviving to “change the landscape of the 8 p.m. time period. Then we’ll turn our attention to other subjects that people have asked us to look into, like the 9 o’clock time period, or magazines or the Internet.” He stresses, “We’ve told everybody we’re in this for the long term. The problem didn’t get created overnight; the solution won’t happen overnight.”


Encouraging Quality Programs

In addition to funding the development of new scripts, the Forum sponsors scholarships at university television-studies departments to encourage student interest in family-friendly programming.

The Forum also sponsors Family Television Awards. “We’re not trying to be against whatever is out there in television. We’re not trying to censor in any way,” Wehling said during a TV interview on Odyssey’s Personally Speaking With Msgr. Jim Lisante. “What we’re trying to do with the Forum is to celebrate the kind of programming that we’re looking for” to encourage more of it.

He also explained the difficulty advertisers encounter when trying to place ads on TV: “We all try very hard to make sure that what we sponsor doesn’t have gratuitous, excessive sex or violence; it’s not overly polarizing or controversial; it doesn’t denigrate key elements of the population or religious groups or minorities.”

Wehling’s background includes teaching Sunday school for over 20 years with his wife. When St. Anthony Messenger asked if family-friendly programming also means programs with positive religious values, he replied, “It can...but that’s not a driving factor....The ideal is positive societal values, which in many cases includes positive religious values.”


What Viewers Can Do

Wehling communicates with other groups that are concerned about the content of TV shows, too. He notes the efforts of Parents Television Council, whose newspaper ads featured Steve Allen, prior to his death, urging viewers to appeal to sponsors for more “family-safe programs.” Wehling says of his meeting with the Council’s board members, “I think their heart is in the right place.” When they asked him if the two groups should work together, the Forum’s cofounder replied, “No. I think you’re effective in what you’re doing; we’re effective in what we’re doing.”

In addition to appealing to the sponsors, what else can viewers do? “Letting people know what you like is important,” says Wehling. “The networks get a lot of negative mail about what people don’t like, but they don’t get as much positive mail on the good-quality family programs. Support good programs when you see them,” he emphasizes. (Web sites and addresses are frequently listed on products, in the credits of TV shows and in many television guides.)

“The single most important thing that every parent can do is to exercise more control over what is watched in the household,” says the father of six. “The ratings don’t lie: Many of the programs that we feel queasy about, from a sponsorship standpoint, get really good ratings. That means lots of people are out there watching. That includes children as well as adults.”

When Gilmore Girls began last fall, TV Guide said, “A rare achievement in family drama, this thoroughly endearing series is sweet and smart: touching without being schmaltzy, sardonic without being nasty.” But the highly praised series suffered in ratings, blamed on the fact that it aired Thursdays opposite Survivor and Friends. (Gilmore is scheduled to air on Tuesdays this fall.)

Wehling says, “We’ve gotten a lot of criticism about Gilmore Girls,” because the mom is single and the family isn’t perfect. His response: “Do you see a lot of excessive sex and violence in this show? No. Do you see a mother and daughter trying to work out issues together? Yes. It’s a step in the right direction.”

He admits that it’s probably more difficult to write a script for a program that is targeted to multigenerational audiences, but it has been done. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor are examples he cites of programs that “bring families together to watch something at the same time and talk about it together, which I think is positive for our society.”


Optimistic Future

Wehling says that the Forum hopes to “generate enough scripts so we get enough pilots to get enough series on the air so enough of them survive.” But, he admits, “In some ways your odds are better in Las Vegas than they are in television.” He explains that one pilot might get produced out of every four or five scripts. And one series might get made out of every two or three pilots. And only one or two series out of five are likely to survive and return the following season.

But he’s optimistic about the future. “I think the reason we’re having a positive impact is because unlike a lot of other groups, we’re not throwing stones at the rest of the network schedule. We’re truly trying to work constructively with them on more choices,” he emphasizes.

“Look at what we do over the long haul,” he continues. A few years from now, if your family’s viewing habits are different in a positive way, especially during the 8 p.m. time period, “give us credit for it.”

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Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication who looks forward to more family-friendly choices when watching TV with her family.


Family Television Awards

Family Friendly Programming Forum launched the Family Television Awards in 1999 at a luncheon held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, with over 550 people attending. These awards honor outstanding examples of family-friendly television entertainment. Last year CBS aired the awards program, produced by Dick Clark. This year’s awards luncheon is planned for August 2 and will be televised at a later date, unless a strike in the industry prevents it.

1999 Winners

The Cosby Show received the lifetime achievement award. This series “profiled a close-knit family with strong, loving parents who disciplined their children.”

Seventh Heaven: The WB drama “consistently presents storylines that parents can comfortably watch with their children.”

Touched by an Angel: The popular CBS series “has demonstrated that religious themes can be handled in a sensitive and entertaining way to attract large audiences.”

Other winners included ABC’s Friday-night programming (at that time) and The Discovery Channel.

2000 Winners

The Wonderful World of Disney, now on ABC, “began entertaining Americans of all ages in 1954.”

Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS’s comedy hit, has “struck a chord with fans of all ages.”

The West Wing, which airs on NBC, “offers families an honest and multilayered view of America’s highest office.”

Other winners included Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie, A&E Biography, National Geographic Explorer, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Michael J. Fox and Della Reese.

 
 

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