During the 1970s, in response to public demand and federal government representatives, the three then-existing television networks established what they called the “Family Hour.” This was a time slot between 8 and 9 p.m. where the networks vowed to broadcast more family-friendly programming.
It’s hard to imagine now, with the Wild West nature of broadcast and cable television, where it seems just about anything goes. But in the 1970s, people were still capable of being scandalized and somewhat shocked by questionable material.
Regardless, I have more than a suspicion the Family Hour was used by the networks more for cover than as a mechanism to provide families with wholesome entertainment. This was the era where I cut my teeth on television and on shows like “Fantasy Island.”
If you watched a rerun of that show you might ask why I was paid to write that stuff, but also think it must have been one of those Family Hour shows. Actually, we were “edgy” then and “Fantasy Island” was on well after the traditional Family Hour timeslot. But despite its somewhat dubious title, it was a toothless and harmless show.
As I write this today, decades after the Family Hour and “Fantasy Island” came and went, bishops in Rome are gathered in a very important synod about the family that may have global repercussions. So I’m writing about a television channel. In a kind of microcosm of how television plays a role in confusing and tangling up the notion of family, Disney’s ABC Family channel is changing its name to Freeform.
Not exactly earth shattering news, but worth a little history review.
The “Family” channel was started way back in the 1980s by televangelist Pat Robertson as part of his “700 Club” empire. When he sold the station to another company, the details of the deal were that the word “family” remain in the channel’s name, along with Mr. Robertson’s “700 Club” program. The station underwent several more ownership changes until it finally fell into the quiver of the ever-growing Disney empire.
At first, the Family channel was just a collection of old family-friendly sitcoms, but via the pathway of multiple takeovers by various large corporations, it slowly morphed into something entirely different. The only thing that remained was the word “family.”
Actually, that word has been a bit of a misnomer for some time, as the outlet has already thrown in with not-so-family-friendly fare such as “Pretty Little Liars” and “Recovery Road,” which, although aimed at a younger demographic, aim a little bit too much below the belt.
Mighty letter writing campaigns may not ensue, howling demands ABC Family return to its roots and give us more reruns of “I was a 6th Grade Alien” or “Mister Moose’s Fun Time” (I didn’t make those up). But the name change also indicates a not-so-family-friendly shift.
In the Hollywood Reporter article written by Lesley Goldberg, ABC Family President Tom Ascheim is quoted at length about the reasoning for taking the word “family” out of the channel’s name and replacing it with Freeform. According to Ascheim, it will help the channel reach a new sub-strata of a demographic he refers to as “Becomers.”
Becoming what is never fully explained, and that’s probably for the better. According to network experts, this group includes young people just coming out of their college years, still not making a lot of money, but beginning to experience real world facts of life like paying rent, paying bills and having to get up every morning to go to a job.
These are kinds of people every pope in my memory has tried to reach with regard to growing up and taking on the joys, sorrows and everything else that goes with family life.
The station formerly known as ABC Family seems to want to do the opposite. Keep them in a perennial single state (where they will have maximum amounts of disposable income for advertisers to tap) and keep them watching shows that although more “adult” in theme, are really just means by which adolescence is unnaturally prolonged.
Like its own version of global warming, the rising tide brought about by television continually opting to delve into the more “adult” and edgy neighborhoods of human interaction has caused the island of family friendly entertainment to grow ever smaller. It’s probably a good time to build a raft and sail to a more friendly land mass.
And speaking of islands, there is now a story in Variety of a reboot of “Fantasy Island” in the mix. This time out there will be an all-female cast and instead of an actual island, the location switches to San Francisco … do the math.
Despite the restructuring of once popular and “safe” television shows into more edgy and “adult” ones, there is no need to despair. Not that the experts at Disney would bother consulting another prescient commentator on popular culture, but someone we as Catholics should never tire of relying on, St. John Paul II, gave us all the marketing advice we need in Evangelium Vitae, “The role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable.”