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Family unfriendly

Entertainment | Sex-obsessed programming is part of effort to rebrand ABC Family Channel

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

A high-school guidance counselor agrees to change a student's schedule so that he is more likely to meet a girl who will have sex with him. A cheerleader breaks up with her boyfriend after discovering that he accepted oral sex from the school tramp. A good-girl French horn player discovers she is pregnant after a one-night stand at band camp and debates with a friend whether or not to terminate the pregnancy.

Sound like the kind of racy fare one might see on HBO or its slightly tamer cousin, the CW? Think again. The previous scenes come from The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a hit show on ABC Family that is changing the network's image and may change parents' minds on whether to allow their children to watch the channel.

According to the ratings, most parents aren't concerned. The show, which focuses on the romantic entanglements of a pregnant 15-year-old girl and her friends, has given ABC Family its biggest audience yet, with nearly 4 million viewers per episode. This is millions more than the CW's much-hyped teen drama Gossip Girl draws in, despite the fact that ABC Family broadcasts in far fewer homes. Teen viewers also crowned Secret Life with "Choice Summer TV Show" at the 2008 Teen Choice awards. Yet many argue that the show's material is hardly appropriate entertainment for the 12- to 17-year-old viewers it attracts.

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With episodes showing teens in bed together and frank discussion of masturbation and internet porn, the content is so adult, it prompted one Huffington Post critic to quip, "If that's family programming, what would non-family programming look like? Frontal nudity?" But network executives claim that Secret Life isn't pushing the envelope so much as staying right in step with real teen experiences.

"The best way to resonate with your audience is to be authentic," says Disney-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, "and you're only authentic if you are holding up a mirror to your audience and saying, 'I see you.'" The show's creator, Brenda Hampton, agrees. A professing Christian, Hampton is most famous for her saccharine but chaste series, 7th Heaven, the longest-running family drama in television history. She insists that Secret Life is appropriate for a network that bills itself as "family programming," saying in an online interview on the ABC Family website, "It's a story . . . [that] goes back to the Bible. We have . . . a young unwed mother. So it's a story that's always been there; it's just done in a new way."

Yet while teen sex and pregnancy may hardly be ground-breaking subjects, they are certainly new to a network founded by evangelist Pat Robertson as The Family Channel, an arm of the Christian Broadcasting Network (News Corp. purchased The Family Channel in 1998 and Disney bought it in 2001). It's also new to Disney, the company long recognized by moms and dads for providing kid-friendly options in an industry permeated with violent and sexual material. And that, say watchdogs groups, is the problem.

"It's kind of a misnomer to call ABC Family a family channel," said Michele MacNeal, head of a local branch of the Parents Television Council. "When you call something 'family,' it gives the impression that it's safe for all members of the family, even young children."

ABC Family President Paul Lee admits that the shows are part of an ongoing effort to rebrand what family programming means, but he says the new direction better reflects what families look like in the new millennium. "We set out to make the modern family in all its passion and dysfunction, and reclaim that word for what it really is for our audience."

Dawn Campbell, a mother of three in Peoria, Ariz., takes issue with Lee's characterization. "I've seen the show and I know teenagers," says Campbell, "and they don't talk like that. They don't interact like that. The steamy scenes are more like adult characters being played by teenagers." Ironically, while discussing the network's success with Entertainment Weekly, Lee drew a direct line between the teen drama and shows famous for extreme adult material. "On cable, it takes a Sopranos or a Shield to really crystallize a network for the audience," said Lee. "Secret Life put us culturally on the map.'

However, Secret Life isn't the only program changing the cultural landscape at the family channel. If Secret Life is primarily a dialogue about the sex lives of young characters, the similarly themed Greek is a video montage. Centering on a group of college freshmen pledging the fraternity and sorority system, the show not only depicts routine casual sex, it addresses it in a much more lighthearted tone. One episode, for example, features the "virgin whisperer," a girl famous across campus for deflowering virgin boys.

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