Whatever happened to the family hour?

I hadn’t realized just what a grumpy, old-fashioned prude I’ve become.

It was Clara’s birthday a few months back. One of her great rewards for turning eight was the privilege of a later bedtime. She is also now occasionally allowed to watch a little television with Mom and Dad.

It’s been challenging to find something appropriate to enjoy together between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. What happened to the “family hour?” What happened to a prime time free of sex, violence, and potty humor?

Look, I know kids aren’t supposed to watch too much television. It’d be better if we read a book. But I’m tired at the end of the day, okay? And I won’t pretend that we aren’t an American family. We watch TV. Not a whole lot, but we watch it.

I don’t think it’s wrong to say that broadcast standards have eroded over the last ten or fifteen years. There was a time when shows with main characters who habitually fell into bed with each other—like Dallas and L.A. Law— aired at 10 p.m. or later. There was an idea that kids might be watching. It was accepted that parents ought to have a fighting chance to get them to bed before the naughty stuff started.

But that notion went the way of the buggy whip. Who needs it? Gossip Girl, which features comely teenagers in decidedly adult situations, comes on at 8. Some may call this progress. I call it cultural rot.

When I was a kid, the whole family watched shows like The Cosby Show and Family Ties together. I can’t really imagine my parents enjoying How I Met Your Mother or Cougar Town. With these shows, it’s never too early in the evening for an off-color joke. The whole episode is an off-color joke.

Why, I even had to surf away from the hour-long tribute to the late Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes recently. 60 Minutes isn’t exactly children’s programming, but I thought it would be nice to show Clara what a big world it is and give her a window into the world of journalism. And Mike Wallace was living in a care facility in New Canaan when he died, so there was a local twist.

We were all set for a nice father/daughter experience, when Wallace went ahead and called himself a “horse’s [rear end].” They didn’t even bother to bleep it. Now I’ve heard worse—but on network television at 7:30 on a Sunday night? You’d think they could give a guy a head’s up. Kids being kids, I won’t be all surprised to hear Clara trying that phrase out on my next time I tell her to finish her peas.

“Oh, Dad, don’t be a horse’s [rear end].” Just what I need.

I can recall my parents sending me out of the room once while we were watching TV together. It was a historical program about the Holocaust. A warning came up that they were about to show some disturbing images, so my parents told me I should probably hit the kitchen for a few minutes.

You think they’d warn you like that now? Fat chance.

I’ve tried sports with mixed results. Clara likes hockey. (I think it’s the ice skating.) I’m always worried that a fist fight is going to break out. Then I’ll have to explain why two guys are pulverizing each other while everyone else stands around watching. I’m not even sure I can explain it.

So we watch cooking shows together. These have the added benefits of being mildly educational. Clara especially likes Lidia Bastianich.

If that’s not on, we watch a travel program. It features cool people going to interesting places to eat weird foods. The host of this program never unexpectedly curses while munching on a hot pepper. I can rely on him to not make gratuitous sexual references about the culture he’s exploring.

There are no commercials on this particular channel either, so we don’t have to worry about steady stream of ads for impotency treatments. What a relief.

I’m no blushing flower. I wasn’t raised in Victorian England. But if I could ask one thing of the creative kingpins of Hollywood and the corporations whose advertising budgets pay their inflated salaries it would be this: Please give us a fighting chance. All we need is an hour or two in the evening so we can sit down with our kids and not have to worry about the garbage.

Geez, would you listen to me? What a grumpy, old-fashioned prude.



  1. Matt, When we were growing up, there was ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, and PBS. Later, came HBO and Nickolodeon, but the assumption was that families were watching together. Now, the kids cable channels are “family friendly” at night, because regular channels have nothing for kids anymore. Remember Saturday morning cartoons? No more. The expansion of cable tv has split television into two camps. Children’s channels and everything else is for adults with no-holds barred. It’s a shame, because I loved watching some of those family shows with my parents. But, now I watch some of the Disney shows with my kids and it kinda evens out.

  2. Matthew Hennessey says:

    Thanks, Amy. I never put it all together in that way.

    Right now my kids love the Fresh Beat Band, and if that’s any indication of what’s going on at night on the children’s channels, then you can definitively count me out. I guess I’ll just have to wait until they’re older and we can all sit down and watch “adult” shows together — which, at the current pace of evolution, should be very adult indeed.

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