The doorbell rings. A young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time is frozen in place, afraid to answer the door. He’s worried not only about whether he’ll meet her parents’ very strict standards, but whether his own family members — living under his roof — will embarrass him with their often-eccentric antics.
“What have you been doing with my daughter?” the father asks. Astonished, he turns to his girlfriend and asks, “You told him about the water balloons?” As she shakes her head disapprovingly, the father stares at the young man and says, “Gotcha!” and gives him a big bear hug.
That’s a scene that could play out in hundreds of homes around America tonight, with different and unexpected results. So it’s hardly surprising that more than 2.5 million viewers tuned in to see how Calvin Payne and his family handled such a situation in an episode of TBS’s Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, cable’s top comedy series.
From ad-supported, basic-cable scripted series like TBS’s The Bill Engvall Show and ABC Family’s Lincoln Heights, to reality series like E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardsahians and TLC’s Jon and Kate Plus 8, the trials and experiences of the traditional family are being played out in front of millions of television audiences. And more viewers — many looking for a reflection of themselves or their home situations on-screen — are tuning in.
Some seek affirmation of their own lives, while others want the voyeuristic thrill of watching dysfunctional characters.
“I think the beauty of the family dynamic comedy or drama is that not only do you get great emotion from the television show, but it’s also very relatable to the viewer,” said E! executive vice president of original programming and series development Lisa Berger. “The viewer can pull something out of multiple family scenarios either from one person they relate to, a topic they relate to or a situation they relate to, so it translates very effectively with the viewer.”
And with more viewers facing economic difficulties — not to mention a shift away from traditional family values — network executives say that content focusing on the traditional nuclear family often provides them encouragement in their own trying situations.
“Because of the economy and the environment that we all navigate, seeing how another family navigates through situations on TV has appeal because you may learn something — or you may just feel better that it’s not you [going through tough situations],” said TLC president and general manager Eileen O’Neill.
That positive family affirmation is manifesting itself successfully through several different programming genres that are delivering a slice of family life in the same vein as classic shows as Father Knows Best did successfully in the ’50s, The Waltons in the ’70s or The Cosby Show in the ’80s.
The family series began to wane in the 1990s, as the broadcast networks developed popular shows that focused more attention on individuals and buddy relationships, such as Seinfeld and Friends, TV historian Tim Brooks said. But he said viewers at the time continued to clamor for family-oriented programming.
“As cable began to develop original-series production in the early 2000s it provided an opportunity to develop more family-oriented programming that’s now beginning to meet a need among viewers,” Brooks said. “Maybe not in the traditional Beaver Cleaver sense, but it still features family — people that are related to you that will always have your back.”
But today’s scripted family-oriented shows like House of Payne, produced by movie/TV producer and actor Tyler Perry, or ABC Family’s hour-long drama seriesThe Secret Life of the American Teenager, are not your father’s squeaky clean Leave It to Beaver.
These shows tackle issues like drug abuse, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and multiethnic relationships, which better reflect the family experiences of today’s viewer, network executives said.
“I think for viewers authenticity is everything — you have to show the places that are threatening to our audiences and present real stories that are not sugar-coated,” said ABC Family president Paul Lee. “But at the same time, we always end up with a deep sense of heart — these are characters that love each other.”
And that sense of authenticity and reliability is resonating with viewers. House of Payne, which follows the lives of an extended African-American family living under the same roof, is averaging 3.1 million viewers for TBS. An already-staggering 126 episodes have been produced since its 2007 debut.
The show centers around lives of a family whose patriarch, Curtis Payne, begrudgingly deals with the day-to-day machinations of overseeing a household that includes his wife and college-aged son, as well as his down-on-his-luck nephew CJ’s family. The show tackles heavy issues, like CJ’s wife’s drug abuse, and Perry is not afraid to inject religion into his story lines.
“The multi-camera family comedy made up the bulk of television comedy for years and years, so I do think that you’re seeing a resurgence in that and that it does reflect people’s taste and desire for something positive right now,” added Wright. “Tyler has done an amazing job of cultivating its audience — he knows his audience better than anybody and that they do want to see a certain amount of life reflected in his storytelling.
ABC Family’s most-watched drama series thus far in 2009 is The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which follows the lives of several families dealing with the unexpected pregnancy of a young teen-age girl. The series averaged 3.9 million viewers during its freshman run.
ABC Family’s Lee said the success of Teenager and Lincoln Heights — which follows an African-American police officer who moves his family back to the troubled, inner-city neighborhood where he grew up — is based in each show’s ability to deal with real family issues in an manner that’s authentic to viewers, particularly the network’s target of “millennials” age 14 to 28.
Viewers are interested in even more family authenticity with rise of popular clan-focused reality series, including MTV’s Run’s House and E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Eschewing celebrities, TLC has focused on larger-than-life nuclear families on shows such as Jon and Kate Plus 8, Little People, Big People and 18 Kids and Counting.
Unlike their scripted counterparts, reality and docu-series provide viewers with a glimpse of real-life families — whether it’s famous folks like the Kardashians or virtual unknowns like the Duggans of 18 Kids and Counting — facing real, relatable family situations.
“I think the reality is, [viewers] are pulling something from their situations,” said E!’s Berger. “I think you’re looking at the family either not to deal with it that way, or to take something that they’re dealing with and bring it into their own lives.”
In fact, it’s more often that family dynamic than star power that makes these shows so successful. Berger said E! initially had reservations about a reality show built just around the then-famous Kardashian sisters, Khloe, Kourtney and Kim. It wasn’t until E! saw how the Kardashians interacted with their mother and stepfather, former Olympian Bruce Jenner, that the show clicked. Currently in its third season, Kardashians averages a network-high 1.5 million viewers.
“If we were just following a lead “A” star without the family dynamics around them, I don’t know if we would do that show,” said Berger, who added that E! recently green-lighted a new series featuring Hollywood’s famous Lamas clan. “I think the family pulls so many great moments out of things.”
But it doesn’t hurt to have a hook to draw in viewers. With TLC’s Jon and Kate, 18 Kids and most recent series launch, Table for 12, the uniqueness of the large Gosselin, Duggan and Hayes families are a natural attention-getter for viewers. But TLC’s O’Neill said the families’ everyday plight of feeding and caring for their kids remain relatable to viewers and has certainly struck a cord — particularly with women.
“We’re all a part of a family, yet these families, because of their uniqueness, inherently bring an interest and intrigue because they’re different from most of our families,” she said.
Despite so many traditional family-tinged shows already in the marketplace, TBS’s Wright doesn’t believe the genre is close to reaching a maturation or saturation point. He added that TBS’s sister network, TNT, is working on a family-based drama series for possible 2010 launch.
Meanwhile, ABC Family will look to tackle the family sitcom later this year when it premieres Ruby and the Rockits, which follows the life of a teen idol trying to live a quiet family life when his brother and former band member — along with his teen-age daughter — unexpectedly turn his life around. We TV will supersize its reality lineup with the June launch of Raising Sextuplets.
Said Wright: “I think there’s just so much cynical [content] in the marketplace that I think there’s always room for television that’s positive and affirms the family.”