HOLLYWOOD — After a decade of increasingly raucous, hip, edgy, sometimes even cynical kids programming, there are signs that producers and broadcasters across the board are launching into a chorus of “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” in the key of F, for Family.
“Families are playing a much more important role, and I think that is making it seem that programming may be getting softer,” says Cyma Zarghami, executive veep and general manager of Nickelodeon.
Nick (which inaugurated the era of kid hipness with “The Ren and Stimpy Show” in 1991) has already gained a lot of attention for its Latino family sitcom “The Brothers Garcia,” but the traditional, nuclear unit presented in the series is only one definition of family in today’s world, which is increasingly being reflected in new shows.
Nick’s recently launched series “Taina,” for example, is about a young girl from an extended Puerto Rican family, while the animated series “As Told by Ginger” features a lead character living in a single-parent home.
While such primetime shows as WB’s “Seventh Heaven” and “The Gilmore Girls,” and Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” may be having an upward effect on their respective dayparts, this new emphasis on family appears to be coming straight from the target audience.
“When you talk with kids, they talk a lot about wanting to spend more time with their families, so we’ve reflected a lot of that in our animated series,” says exec VP of Kids’ WB! Donna Friedman.
Even the net’s upcoming toon series “The Mummy,” based on Universal’s bigscreen summer sequel “The Mummy Returns,” is anchored around a core family of archaeologists.
Kids’ WB! is also prepping its first live-action show, “The Nightmare Room,” which, while not exactly family-based, is “safely scary,” according to Friedman.
But familial or not, animation is experiencing less of a softening than live-action shows, in part because of its younger skew (even Nick’s upcoming toon show “Fairly Odd Parents” is described as a quirky family comedy).
“The animated market is still very much concept-driven,” notes Stan Golden, president of Saban Intl. “But when you get into live action, which tends to skew a little older, that’s where we see more family-oriented product sell through quite nicely.”
The trick of course, is to dull the slicing edge of a show without removing its impact.
“Television doesn’t have to be outrageous to be successful,” declares Gary Marsh, exec vice president of original programming for the Disney Channel, “but it does have to be outrageously funny or outrageously smart or outrageously relevant.”
In addition to its slate of original movies (such as the recent “The Luck of the Irish”), the cabler is prepping animated series “The Proud Family,” which centers on an African-American household, targeted at the 9-to-14 bracket.
The goal, says Marsh, is to drift down a little bit in terms of the demographics and also have some families come on as well.
Keeping the kids
Reaching out to that tween audience has become a major goal for broadcasters. The problem is that kids in this age group are proving hard to pull away from more adult viewing, such as “Friends” or MTV.
“That’s the type of programming they’ve grown up on, so the real challenge is to figure out how to produce entertaining shows without alienating the audience we’re going after,” says Joel Andryc, exec veep of programming and development for Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network.
Fox Family is hoping for a family hit with “So Little Time,” a new series starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as twins forced to cope with the divorce of their parents, which is premiering this June.
Even the live-action teencoms of NBC’s Saturday morning lineup, which are targeted to 12- to 17-year-olds, are showing more signs of family orientation.
“Before, if we did 26 episodes in a season, we’d see parents two or three times, and now we’ll see them every couple of episodes, and they have much bigger parts,” says Linda Mancuso, president of Peter Engel Prods., which produces “Hang Time,” “City Guys” and “One World” for the Peacock.
Mancuso, who is overseeing a new, more dramatic show for teens called “All About Us,” feels that the change is not so much one of “softness” but one of reality.
“It’s more emotional today, maybe that’s a better word than ‘soft,'” she says. “(The shows) are dealing with more real situations.”
The irony is that one person’s realism is another’s edginess. Case in point is the TNBC (the Peacock’s Saturday ayem brand) show “Just Deal.”
“People are saying (of ‘Just Deal’), ‘Wow, that’s really edgy,'” says Lee Gaither, VP of Saturday morning family programs for NBC. “But these are just kids talking, they’re not cursing, there’s nothing particularly edgy going on in the show.”
No one can predict exactly where this movement for kinder, gentler youth programming will lead, but everyone agrees that shows for kids and families will not cycle back to the Neverland world of “The Brady Bunch.”
“The pendulum swings back and forth, but I don’t think we’re ever going to go way to the left or way to the right,” states Andryc. “I don’t think we’ll ever return to ‘Ozzie and Harriet.'”