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The TV Industry's Lack of Imagination

So many ways to watch, so few family-oriented choices.


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

It’s often said we live in a golden age of television, with more quality content than ever before, consumable through a variety of channels and services on the devices of our choosing. What’s not to love? But the reality is, although there’s been a boom in funding for original programming and arguably an expansion in the range of subjects these programs tackle, there’s one area where there’s still a shocking lack of imagination: Family programming.

TV-MA is the rating of choice for original programming

What’s most striking to me when I look at the original programming funded and launched by major players such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO is the ratings that these programs receive according to the TV Parental Guidelines system. Because some of this programming doesn’t appear on traditional television, not all of it receives such a rating, but the vast majority of it does, and the ratings they receive are incredibly consistent:

As you can see, the vast majority of original programs commissioned or licensed by these TV services over the past few years have either received a TV-MA rating (or would have done so if they received a rating). Just one of these programs received something else, and that was a TV-14 rating.

Now, I’ve excluded from this listing those programs explicitly aimed at children, of which both Amazon and Netflix have commissioned a few each. But among programming not aimed at children, everything else is very much adult programming. This isn’t surprising in a way for HBO, which has always had a reputation for racier and more adult content, both in the movies it screens and in the series it commissions and licenses. But Amazon and Netflix have no such heritage — they’ve always carried a wide variety of content in their catalogs. But when it comes to originals, they’ve very much followed the path blazed by HBO.

Family programming is missing

What’s fascinating to me is, in a world where there’s now virtually free rein in content formats and other aspects of television, all this programming has stuck to a standard 30-minute or one-hour format, and adult fare pioneered by HBO on cable TV. What’s missing entirely from these slates of content is family-oriented programming. What I mean is content consumable by families composed of parents and younger children, watching together. There’s content aimed explicitly at kids, and there’s very adult programming, but there’s nothing for parents to watch with their younger children. There’s also nothing for parents (myself included) who tend to favor PG or PG-13 rather than R-rated content, even after the kids have gone to bed.

But let’s focus on the family programming angle for a minute. Why is this content missing from these services’ original programming slates? I think the question is actually broader — why is it missing from standard broadcast schedules, too? When I was growing up, there were programs we would watch together as a family, because their appeal crossed over between kids and grownups.

But there’s essentially nothing aimed at this combined demographic on broadcast TV these days (just this week, ABC announced it was bringing a version of “The Muppet Show” (one of the staples of my childhood family viewing) back to TV, but this time it’s a version targeted at an adult audience).

Why is this? I suspect the reason is twofold: Advertisers prefer to target narrower audiences, and those audiences exist. The proliferation of both targeted cable channels and SVOD services have made it possible for each member of a family to watch his or her own programming, independent of other members of the family. IPads, phones, PCs and laptops, and Netflix on the TV mean the 6-year-old, the 12-year-old and Mom and Dad can each watch exactly what they want to. Watching TV has become a less social and more isolated experience in recent years, and perhaps programmers simply don’t see the point in trying to reach a mixed audience. To the extent that television is social anymore, it’s more often so only in a virtual way, with viewers connecting with each other over distances, via Facebook or Twitter.

PG and PG-13 content is missing, too

I want to return to the point I made briefly in the preceding section: The other thing missing is adult programming (by which I mean programming targeted at adults, rather than programming with adult content) that’s not heavy on sex, violence, and swearing. HBO, Netflix and Amazon’s original programming majors on this stuff, and it has undoubtedly found an audience.

But though I was excited by the business-model innovation inherent in the launch of HBO Now, I wasn’t excited about any of the content. I did sign up for the free trial period just to try the service out, but my early experience confirmed my sense that much of HBO’s programming simply isn’t for me. My wife and I tend to watch pretty tame fare, and HBO is a poor fit. But neither Amazon nor Netflix is catering to this audience, either, which is bigger than you might think.

Though our ratings system tends to be geared toward parental guidance, many others use both the TV and MPAA ratings systems as basic guidelines to the content of TV shows and movies for themselves. And what you notice as a consumer of both movies and TV shows is that the middle ratings — the stuff between G at one end and R at the other — are sparsely populated among the biggest-budget offerings.

Some innovation is happening at the edges

There is some innovation and originality happening here, but it’s not happening among the big-name broadcasters or SVOD services. Instead, it’s happening as more of a grassroots effort, outside the traditional spheres. Various companies have developed and sold technologies that filter DVDs for what the viewers consider objectionable material, for example.

This isn’t a great solution — these services and devices often cost a significant amount on top of the cost of renting or buying the media to be consumed — but it’s often the best solution for people who find little of the available content suitable out of the box. Another area of innovation is the Roku Channel Store, which offers a variety of channels you won’t find anywhere else, including several that cater to the kinds of audiences I’m talking about, including lots of faith-based channels and several targeted specifically at families watching together. In many cases, the audience itself is creating content that it wants to watch on behalf of other like-minded people.

Many of these channels likely have tiny audiences today in the grand scheme of things, but some of them do quite well on Roku’s list of most popular channels. There’s a big audience out there for this kind of content, and some of the bigger names would do well to cater to it. Given all the variety that’s springing out of our brave new TV world, it would be great if that variety would begin to extend to ratings, too.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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