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Eye on the News

Adam D. Thierer
Who Killed TV’s “Family Hour”?
It’s not who you think.
7 September 2007

The nonprofit Parents Television Council (PTC) released a report this week lamenting the supposed death of broadcast television’s “family hour.” Though neither the Federal Communications Commission nor Congress ever mandated it, 8 to 9 PM Monday through Saturday (Eastern time), and 7 to 9 PM on Sunday, have traditionally been devoted to family-friendly programming. But the PTC’s new report claims that these blocks of time are now “no place for children,” because “corporate interests have hijacked the family hour” and “have pushed more and more adult-oriented programming to the early hours of the evening.”

One might respond to this claim by questioning the PTC’s methodology, particularly its definitions of foul language. Simon Vozick-Levinson of Entertainment Weekly’s “PopWatch Blog” takes this approach, accusing the PTC of “cooking the numbers” to suit its cultural agenda. But I don’t want to engage in methodological nit-picking, since it quickly devolves into a subjective squabble about acceptable language and appropriate programming. Instead, I want to point out the fundamental flaw in the report’s premise. The family hour may well be dead—but parents, not broadcasters, were the ones who killed it.

If you were born in an earlier generation, when broadcast television still dominated America’s media landscape, the family hour might still seem like a big deal. At that time—not so long ago—just about the only shows for kids to watch aired during the early evening. But the days of media scarcity passed away with disco and bell bottoms. Once cable TV and VCRs came along, a viewing revolution began that upended the entire video marketplace. Today, the consumer-empowerment revolution has kicked into high gear, now that viewers have access to a stunning variety of information and entertainment options, along with countless devices to help them manage media consumption for themselves and their families.

Consider a few statistics. According to various FCC and industry reports, 86 percent of households subscribe to cable or satellite TV today, receiving an average of 102 channels from the more than 500 available. A large and growing number of those channels are child- or family-oriented—Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, Noggin, PBS Kids, the Hallmark Channel, and many others that didn’t exist 20 years ago. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that 85 percent of U.S. households have at least one VCR—down from a high of 91 percent in 2005, because consumers have been replacing VCRs with DVD players and recorders. According to CEA, 83 percent of households have at least one DVD player, up from 13 percent in 2000. And children’s programming continues to be a significant driver of the VCR/DVD market.

Further, the market-research firm eMarketer estimates that almost 22 percent of homes will have a digital video recorder (DVR) by the end of 2007, and that household penetration will approach 45 percent by 2011. The CEA reports that the average DVR unit price fell from $261 in 2003 to $177 in 2007. The use of video-on-demand (VOD) technology is exploding as well: VOD household usage will grow from 21.4 percent in 2005 to 42 percent in 2010, eMarketer estimates. According to various industry reports, children’s programming represents one of the largest and most popular categories of VOD programming.

In light of these marketplace realities, let’s return to the question of who killed the broadcast TV family hour. The answer: parents like me! Armed with all these new viewing options and technologies, parents, not broadcasters, now determine the content of the family hour and when it will take place. We no longer have to sit down at 8:00 each night to be spoon-fed our daily dose of family-friendly fare. For example, in our home, my wife and I have designated one television for most of our children’s video consumption, and we use a DVR to amass a large library of programming that we believe is educational, enriching, and appropriate. We can catalog and archive dozens of programs and supplement them with VHS tapes, DVDs, and computer software. When we allow our children some TV time, we know that they’ll be able to watch our preferred episodes of Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go, Blue’s Clues, and The Wiggles.

Technological empowerment will spread and benefit parents even more in coming years. Comcast Corporation, the nation’s largest cable provider, conducted a poll last year of its most aggressive VOD and DVR users and found that 85 percent indicated that they “always have appropriate shows available for their children to watch.” Moreover, 65 percent said that they “have fewer conflicts about what to watch on TV,” and 63 percent said that they “watch more television as a family” thanks to the tools.

Needless to say, families didn’t have such content tailoring and viewer empowerment in the past. The PTC seems stuck in that past, though, when it sees a national crisis just because some TV broadcasters fail to air enough family-friendly programming at 8:00 each night. I happen to agree with the PTC that not all of the programming shown on broadcast TV at 8:00 PM is appropriate for my children. But like millions of other parents, I can now take matters into my own hands.

Adam Thierer is a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation (www.pff.org) in Washington, D.C.

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