Family? Valueless.

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

At his first meeting with reporters after being named president of CBS Entertainment in 1995, Leslie Moonves was asked whether he'd be comfortable with his 12-year-old daughter watching a show in which a couple had sex in a dentist's chair--a gag depicted on NBC's "Friends."

Moonves fidgeted a bit before saying the scene was handled tastefully, when he might have ducked the question by responding that it was moot: If she's like most kids, his daughter doesn't watch NBC at 8 p.m.--or, depending on the night, any other broadcaster.

Although some parents' advocates and elected officials continue pushing to reinstate the so-called family viewing hour--a designated haven of programming acceptable for children in prime-time's first hour--the broadcast networks' lineups for next season offer relatively little programming meant to attract children, who increasingly get their entertainment elsewhere.

That shift poses a chicken-and-egg riddle: Have kids fled the major networks because they scheduled such shows as "Friends" and "Melrose Place" at 8 p.m., as opposed to programs designed for family viewing; or were the networks inevitably going to lose youngsters to videos, computers and cable channels that court them throughout the day?

Whatever the reason, less than half the network series scheduled between 8 and 9 p.m. next fall contain elements traditionally viewed as being geared to children.

NBC--the No. 1 network in ratings and profits--actually runs last among the major networks in children's viewing during the family hour, and its revised lineup for next season appears even less inviting to kids, including at least two editions of the newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" at 8 p.m., plus the sitcoms "Suddenly Susan," "Mad About You" and "Friends."

Then again, NBC--the network that once defined programming that appeals to all ages with "The Cosby Show"--has made clear that including children in its audience is not a priority. In its press releases, NBC almost exclusively trumpets its results in terms of viewers age 18 to 54--the broad demographic swath used as the basis for selling most advertising time.

"They're really going for the money . . . [by] looking at it completely as a business," says Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council, a group lobbying to restore traditional values through the family hour. "I think they're totally handing that [children's] audience over to Nickelodeon."

NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer maintains that the thriving presence of Nickelodeon and other like-themed channels underscores that the family hour is an outdated notion, "left over from 30 years ago, when there were only 3, 4 or 5 choices for people to watch."

Because three networks monopolized TV viewing in that era, programmers assumed that children controlled the dial at 8 p.m., and parents watched with them. Networks tried to program for the entire family to open the night with series such as "Lost in Space," "The Partridge Family" and "The Brady Bunch," then ran more adult series later, when younger kids were apt to be in bed.

Nevertheless, the idea behind codifying such guidelines has always incited controversy. Introduced by the National Assn. of Broadcasters in 1975, the "family viewing hour" stated that "entertainment programming inappropriate for viewing by a general family audience should not be broadcast" in the first hour of prime time.

Producer Norman Lear--whose groundbreaking comedy "All in the Family" played a part in inspiring network critics to call for such restrictions--joined with the Writers Guild of America to file a lawsuit challenging the guidelines on grounds that the government unconstitutionally foisted them on the television industry. In 1976, a federal court ruled in Lear's favor, and the official "family hour" ended--although the networks continued to adhere to it informally for years.

There have been ongoing efforts ever since to revive the family hour as a policy, including proposed legislation. A TV ratings system, introduced last year under renewed government pressure, labels programs to alert parents as to their content but doesn't restrict what can air in a given hour.

Some TV executives maintain that even talking about a "family viewing hour" today fails to address the way technology and lifestyles have changed, and how broadcasters must adapt to that reality.

Roughly 85% of homes now have at least one VCR, and three-quarters possess cable as well as two or more TV sets. As a result, children can easily watch videos or channels dedicated to them--such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel--while their parents view what they want in another room.

With channels catering to narrow audience segments, NBC maintains that it's impractical for broadcasters to focus on appealing to children--who account for less than 15% of the potential viewing audience--if it means alienating adults.

"We can't compete with Nickelodeon unless we're going to do programs specifically aimed atthat age group, and if we do specifically aim at that age group, we're going to turn off other age groups," Ohlmeyer says.

Some critics would dismiss that argument as an alibi. Peggy Charren--the Massachusetts grandmother who championed and eventually won passage of the Children's Television Act of 1990, which mandates that broadcasters air at least three hours a week of educational programming for children--opposes legislating a family hour on free-speech grounds; still, she contends the networks should improve their kids programming, and that Nickelodeon's popularity doesn't absolve them from their obligation to serve kids as broadcasters over public airwaves.

As a member of the Gore Commission, a White House panel developing public-interest standards for digital television, Charren resents relegating educational programming to a "children's ghetto" on Saturday mornings. She frets less about what's objectionable than over the general lack of material calculated to enlighten or enrich children, including quality dramatic fare.

"When that's done right, parents and grandmas and even young adults can watch them. Nobody's trying to do that," Charren says. "It's not that what's there is not good for children . . . [but] where's the breathtaking new stuff, even at holiday time?"

Surveys indicate that parents remain concerned about TV content and what their kids see. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that more than 60% of parents worry about children's exposure to sex and violence on television, a marked increase from a similar poll conducted in October 1996.

Yet the same research underscored the challenge family programming faces commercially, with 26% of children who said they had tuned out a show due to its content rating doing so because it was labeled as being appropriate for children, indicating to them that the program was meant for young kids. Movie studios have also discovered that many teenagers and childless adults appear put off by material positioned as being for a "family audience."

Programmers generally agree that Nickelodeon has been the most influential force in terms of children's TV habits. The cable channel now tops all networks in ratings among kids, despite its availability in fewer homes than its broadcast competitors.

Nickelodeon has nearly quadrupled its children's audience at 8 p.m. over the last five years, while network viewing by those age 2 to 11 dropped more than 40%. Since the television season began in September, the cable channel has averaged almost 1.9 million kids tuning in at that time--more than twice as many as NBC, and far more than second-place Fox.

"[The networks] really did stop programming for that audience," said Cyma Zarghami, executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon, which will expand its block of prime-time kids shows to an hour in August. "We serve kids in day-parts where they are under-served or not being served at all."

While broadcasters agree that Nickelodeon has had a major impact on their ability to attract kids, some are reluctant to concede that audience to cable.

ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Co., will increase its child-friendly content next fall, moving the family sitcom "Home Improvement" to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and introducing a sitcom featuring "Full House" twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as part of its Friday "TGIF" comedy block--prime time's most popular kids franchise.

ABC officials say children and parents can be enticed to view TV together, as demonstrated by the many parents who watch "The Wonderful World of Disney" with a teenager or child. According to ABC, that showcase (which the network revived last fall) averages more viewers for each TV set tuned to the program than any other series.

Yet ABC also acknowledges that adults, not kids, remain the industry's currency from a sales standpoint, and with multiple sets in the majority of homes, adults no longer sit through a children's show unless the material offers them something as well.

"In order for a show to get both kids and their parents, it has to be appealing to both kids and their parents. You're not going to get anyone by default anymore," says Jeff Bader, ABC's vice president of scheduling.

The UPN network, which struggled ratings-wise this season, also wants to establish a more family-oriented image. Its offerings next season include "Legacy," an 1880s western set on a Kentucky ranch, created by Chris Abbott, whose credits include "Little House on the Prairie."

"When you talk 'family' to most studio executives, they instantly get a tingle in the back of their necks," notes Tom Nunan, president of entertainment at UPN. "Our attitude is, 'Look, it doesn't have to be soft and it doesn't have to be uninspired to reach a family audience. It just has to be good.' "

Each network, however, offers its share of grown-up fare at 8 p.m. as well. ABC, for example, currently airs the frequently risque Michael J. Fox comedy "Spin City" in that hour, and will move "Dharma & Greg"--about a pair of hot-for-each-other newlyweds--to 8 p.m. Wednesdays next season, where CBS runs the innuendo-laden sitcom "The Nanny."

Even the WB, which initially marketed itself as a "family friendly" alternative, has moved in a more mature direction by scheduling the action-oriented "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the sex-minded teen soap "Dawson's Creek" at 8 p.m., as well as the at-times raunchy sitcom "The Wayans Bros."

Many programmers attribute the push of adult shows into the family hour to Fox, which in addition to stealing young adults from the Big Three networks employed more lenient standards, shifting the racy serial "Melrose Place" to 8 p.m. in 1994 with little public outcry.

"Certainly, Fox played a big part in it," says WB entertainment president Garth Ancier, a one-time Fox executive. "When Fox started moving shows that did well with adults [to 8 o'clock], it was like a dam was broken, and everybody started programming differently."

Losing viewers at an unnerving pace, the networks also felt more pressure from their sales forces to reel in the key adults that advertisers covet. More adult sitcoms yielded improved ratings among those viewers at 8 p.m., with NBC's "Wings" hurting ABC's "Full House," prompting both networks to schedule programs such as "Friends" and "Roseanne" in lead-off positions.

In the wake of such moves, a 1996 study by the advocacy group Children Now, titled "Sex, Kids and the Family Hour," reported a sharp increase in sexual content at 8 p.m.

Many parents expressed greater concern about sex than violence as comedies filled more prime-time real estate. Parents' advocate Honig objects to the prevalence of sitcoms "relying on the cheap sexual humor and crude language in order to get laughs."

Some television executives argue that such critics hearken for a past that no longer exists and the benign programs that won favor in the 1950s and '60s. In recent years, critically lauded family dramas such as "My So-Called Life," "I'll Fly Away" and "Second Noah" all fell victim to low ratings.

The WB has enjoyed some success with "7th Heaven," a drama about a minister and his wife (played by Stephen Collins and Catherine Hicks, respectively) raising their five children. Even that show, however, draws much of its audience from teens and young adults, due in part to its attractive teenage cast.

"The traditional family shows have really suffered," Ancier says. "I think that's because Nickelodeon has become such a destination. . . . It's kind of discouraging in some ways. I grew up with television as something kids and adults watched together at 8 o'clock."

The challenge facing the networks in creating such family-viewing experiences today will only grow more difficult as children's options proliferate.

Nickelodeon alone accounts for more than one-fifth of children's viewing at 8 p.m. While the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network are each seen in substantially fewer homes, both of them also posted solid ratings gains during the just-concluded TV season.

In addition, several competing services are joining the fray, threatening to cannibalize the existing children's audience from both the networks and cable.

The all-animation channel Toon Disney launched in April, and Fox is transforming the Family Channel into a children's provider. Nickelodeon plans its own spinoff service with "Sesame Street" producer Children's Television Workshop, while Hallmark Entertainment and the late Jim Henson's company are introducing the Kermit Channel overseas and exploring cable opportunities in the U.S.

The range of educational viewing options extends beyond conventional children's fare to PBS, as well as the Discovery Channel, A&E;, the History Channel and Animal Planet.

The major networks have yet to determine whether they will pay a long-term price for their declining children's audience, as a generation grows up drawing no distinction between the leading channels and a host of alternatives.

"Kids are completely unaware that the [cable] signal comes from a different place," Nickelodeon's Zarghami says. "We call it 'video democracy.' "

Some broadcasters, meanwhile, argue that the voluminous roster of available children's programming shifts responsibility from programmers to parents in choosing what kids should see. (According to a 1997 Los Angeles Times Poll, a vast majority of parents do restrict children's viewing, and 12% said they don't let their kids watch TV at all.)

"Kids have never had more or better stuff to watch," says NBC's Ohlmeyer. "What's needed now is for parents to take an interest in what their kids are watching."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Children's Ratings 8-9 p.m.

A five-year track shows declining viewing for the major networks in the first hour of prime time, based on combined ratings among children ages 2 to 11.

The four networks are ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Cable represents all cable channels, though the bulk of children's viewing is on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network. The ratings figures cited are a percentage of the total U.S. children's population.

Sources: Nickelodeon, Nielsen Media Research

Family Fun Here are some of the network programs that might appeal to younger kids which will air next fall in what used to be called "the family hour":

Sundays

"Touched by an Angel" (CBS)

"The Wonderful World of

Disney" (ABC)

"The Simpsons" (Fox)

"Sister, Sister" (WB)

"Smart Guy" (WB)

Mondays

"Cosby" (CBS)

"7th Heaven" (WB)

Tuesdays

"Home Improvement" (ABC)

"King of the Hill" (Fox)

"Moesha" (UPN)

Fridays

"Kids Say the Darndest

Things" (CBS)

"Candid Camera" (CBS)

"Two of a Kind" * (ABC)

"Boy Meets World" (ABC)

"Legacy" * (UPN)

Saturdays

"America's Funniest Home

Videos" (ABC)

* Indicates new show.

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