‘The Voice’: What is ‘Family Programming’ on Network TV These Days Anyway?

The-VoiceLast week, courtesy of an invite from a PR firm, and some extra help from executive producer Mark Burnett, Senior Producer Tony Sands and I scored some great seats (as you can see in the picture above) for a taping of “The Voice.”

(And, like others, I’m sad to see folk-singer-y Emily Keener go home …)

Watching the enthusiastic crowd — which spanned a range of ages, from teens to retirees — I started thinking about what, in the current TV landscape, especially on the broadcast networks, actually functions as family television.

Sands and I noticed that many of the contestants were teens, and that while their song choices were contemporary, they weren’t scandalous. The girls’ outfits had skirts that were short, but not to the level of provocative or raunchy. Burnett is known for producing faith-friendly programs like “The Bible” and “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” and he’s aware that, while satisfying mainstream viewers, there are also parameters of acceptability for the broad audience he’s seeking for “The Voice.”

These days, that truly broad audience doesn’t show up often, and when it does, it’s usually for the NFL or unscripted shows.

It’s hard to come up with a scripted show on primetime network television that doesn’t have objectionable elements, or that would hold the interest of everyone from gradeschoolers to grandparents. Unscripted shows — both on network TV and on cable — have often become the default destination for families.

Of course, not all unscripted fare is family-suitable (that’s putting it mildly), but music-competition shows like the now-defunct “American Idol” and “The Voice,” physical-challenge shows like NBC/Esquire’s “American Ninja Warrior,” and cooking shows, like Fox’s “MasterChef” — and, of course, “MasterChief Junior,” which grew out of the popularity of the adult show with young audiences — offer a rare opportunity for the whole family to enjoy a show together.

And, if you put them on the DVR, you can skip over the dicey commercials that may occasionally occur. Or, you can wait and catch up with them on the networks’ Websites or on streaming services like Hulu.

On cable, viewers of all ages enjoy “Gold Rush” and “Deadliest Catch” on Discovery Channel (some of these guys are pretty salty, but it’s all bleeped), along with lots of offerings on HGTV, Cooking Channel, Food Channel, DIY, Animal Planet and National Geographic Channel. And of course, there’s always my perennial favorite, PBS’ (and HGTV’s) “This Old House” — inspiration for Family Theater Productions’ own viral series “This Old Chapel” — on which contractors and carpenters are king.

In a way, this is a very good thing. In place of a steady diet of cartoons and scripted shows that bear little resemblance to reality, kids and parents can learn about real occupations and skills — from chef to general contractor to gold miner to dog trainer to crab fisherman — and get a glimpse (put through the reality lens, of course) of how people make their living in the world.

As for the music-competition shows, kids can learn that effort pays off, that talent alone is no substitute for hard work, and that not everyone’s a winner (but that’s OK, considering how many “Idol” and “Voice” runners-up have gone on to do very well).

On “American Ninja Warrior,” kids can see how sacrifice and practice yield results, and that just because you fall on an obstacle, you can come back and try again the next year.

Speaking of Burnett, there’s also his “Shark Tank” on ABC, in which moguls hear pitches from entrepreneurs in search of funding. Sometimes, it’s like a masterclass in business, in digest form (with more material available on the Website). Young viewers can also see that an indisputably cool kid like Ashton Kutcher can also have a sharp business brain.

We’d all like more family-suitable scripted shows on network and cable, but until the entertainment industry wakes up to the audience’s desire for inspiring, wholesome dramas and comedies, parents have lots of unscripted choices that are not only good, but good for you.

Image: Kate O’Hare

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.