How Parents Became Cool

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After she is caught stealing designer sunglasses, Hanna, a popular blond teen on the new TV series "Pretty Little Liars," shares a heartfelt moment with her understanding and fashionable single mother. The two agree to put the shoplifting incident behind them.

Informing the scene is a new insight that is reshaping the way Hollywood portrays the modern family: Teens like their parents.

For decades, TV has depicted teens as angst-ridden and rebellious, and parents as out-of-touch and unhip. Then network executives realized that popular shows that tapped into the defiant-youth subculture were losing viewers. Now, teen shows tend to be more like ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars," an emotional drama premiering in June about teens caught up in the disappearance of a popular classmate.

This less-defiant generation is influencing plots, changing what types of shows get made and prompting networks like MTV that have long specialized in youthful rebellion to rethink their approach. The new, more-sanguine shows still broach racy topics like sex, drug use and teen pregnancy, but they appease parents by always presenting consequences. Parents typically have prominent roles and just as many tawdry story lines as the teens—and look almost like older siblings.

Market research documenting the shift has influenced new programming at the ABC Family network, owned by Walt Disney Co. In a study of more than 2,000 children conducted by Experian Simmons, a unit of Experian PLC, 75% of 12- to 17-year-olds said they get along with their parents, and 72% said they like spending time with their families. In a June 2007 study, 93% of teens said they had a good relationship with their mothers—an estimated 15 to 20 percentage points higher than two decades ago, according to Frank N. Magid Associates.

These days, parents and teens are also watching the same shows, and in many cases they are watching together. "American Idol" is the most popular show on broadcast TV among viewers 12 to 17 years old, attracting about 1.4 million per episode. Fox's musical comedy "Glee," about outcast kids in a high-school glee club, mixes music by Rihanna with Neil Diamond, AC/DC and the Rolling Stones to bring in both children and their parents.

The new ABC Family show "Pretty Little Liars" features students at fictional Rosewood High School. On a recent afternoon at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, Calif., Aria Montgomery, a 16-year-old character played by actress Lucy Hale, sat in a fluorescent-lit classroom packed with rows of desks, green chalkboards and cluttered bookshelves. Pulling out a copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Aria exchanged a furtive glance with Mr. Fitz, the dashing young English teacher she recently made out with. Earlier, Aria was in her room with her mother, Ella, whom the script describes as "attractive, well-read and liberal." They "relate to each other more as friends than mother and daughter," the script says.
Effects of Mobile TV

At a time when laptops and mobile devices make it easy to watch TV outside the confines of the family room, catching subversive TV behind closed doors no longer feels like adolescent rebellion, says Stephen Friedman, general manager of Viacom Inc.'s MTV. It used to be "all about nihilism and doing anything your parents were against," he says.

With a cadre of original series developed for teens and their parents, once-flailing ABC Family has become one of the 10 most-watched cable channels, ahead of MTV, with an average of 1.5 million total prime-time viewers, according to Nielsen Co. In addition to teens, the channel attracts an average of 407,000 18- to 49-year-old women during prime time—a sign mothers and daughters are watching together, Disney says.

ABC Family's top-rated series, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," about a girl who gets pregnant the first time she has sex and must raise a child, attracts about 3 million viewers per episode. That compares with 1.3 million for MTV's highest-rated series "The Hills," which follows a glamorous group as they gallivant around Los Angeles, and 2.2 million for the CW network's "Gossip Girl," about privileged young Manhattanites, according to Nielsen.

In addition to "Pretty Little Liars," based on a popular book series for young adults, ABC Family also is about to launch "Huge," a scripted drama about obese teens at weight-loss camp.

Born in the 1990s, teens today are part of the generation marketers call "millennials," raised with the modern parenting style that emphasizes coddling over curfews, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author. "We're a culture of 'yes' parents, and we've done a lot of hovering and smothering that's brought us closer to our children."

These are the original "helicopter parents," adults in their 30s and 40s who are excessively involved in their children's lives. These parents tend to avoid exerting parental control, try to stay connected through technology, and share interests like fashion, music and television with their kids, researchers say. They may wear the same J. Crew styles as their teens, buy the same drinks at Starbucks, and go to yoga or a sushi bar together. They are tolerant of racy content on TV, preferring to watch it with their teens and discuss it later, rather than let the kids find it on their own.

Whether not spanking kids or rewarding them when they lose a soccer game, "society has essentially realigned itself to cherish the child," says Jack MacKenzie, president of the Millennial Strategy Program at Frank N. Magid Associates. "Is it any wonder kids love parents who treat them that way?"

Kelly Peña, senior vice president of research at Disney Channels Worldwide, travels the country observing how families watch TV. She says she sees more families enjoying the same shows—even if the kids are watching online and the parents are watching a TV set.

Based on this information, the Disney Channel crafted a family sitcom targeted at young teens and parents, "Good Luck Charlie." The April 4 premiere was watched by nearly 5.7 million viewers, including 1.4 million adults—more than double the cable network's traditional prime-time lineup.

TV has long been an outlet for rebellious youth, starting with Elvis Presley's and the Beatles' performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," to MTV and the moneyed, over-developed high-schoolers of "Beverly Hills, 90210." Through most of those years, parents have been clueless, uncool and usually on the sidelines. In the 1990s, Fox's "Party of Five," about a group of orphans living in San Francisco, dispensed with the parents altogether.

But over the past couple of years, executives at ABC Family say they have noticed a change. Fewer teens were watching glitzy, aspirational series like "The Hills" on MTV and "Gossip Girl" on the CW and audiences for the network's quieter shows have grown. The network now has almost 100 million subscribers, up from 81 million in 2001.

The CW has a median age of 32 so teens' viewing habits "are not quite as relevant to us," says Dawn Ostroff, CW president of entertainment.

MTV noticed something was off when "The Hills" started attracting fewer teen viewers and more 18- to 24-year-olds in recent years. At the same time, a bloc of more-family-friendly afternoon programming dubbed "PAW" (for "Parents Are Watching") brought in solid ratings. "It was a wake-up call," Mr. Friedman says. "Five or 10 years ago, MTV would never have done shows like that."
'Parental Control' Adjusts

MTV recently reworked "Parental Control," a reality dating show in which parents set their teenagers up on blind dates, to show more amicable relations between the generations. Parents are less confrontational now, and more scenes take place in family dens rather than in studios. The network currently is conducting a study that asks teens for their views on "rebellion." The findings will influence programming decisions.

In 2001 Disney paid $5.2 billion to purchase ABC Family and other assets from Saban Entertainment Inc. and News Corp. (which also owns Fox and Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal). Once known as the Family Channel, part of TV evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, the channel came with a stodgy, conservative image. Disney bought it to reach "the young adult viewers between the Disney Channel audience of kids and families, and the broader adult audience served by ABC," says Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group.

In the early days, ratings and advertising revenue were dismal. The contract stipulated that the word "family" remain in the network's title—a built-in turnoff to the cool clique—and analysts predicted ABC Family would be one of the costliest blunders in the tenure of former Disney chief Michael Eisner.

Under Paul Lee, president of ABC Family and a former chief executive at BBC America, ABC Family commissioned extensive research on "millennials," asking what the word "family" meant to them. The results were unexpected. Respondents said they liked spending time with their families. "Initially, everyone expressed concern [about the name] except the audience," Ms. Sweeney says.

The network began airing reruns of the popular WB network series "Gilmore Girls," about a single mom and her teenage daughter, and "Smallville," which follows the adventures of Clark Kent before he became Superman. It adopted the tagline "A New Kind of Family" and began to develop original, scripted series aimed at teens and mothers.

Recently, ABC Family recruited Winnie Holzman, creator of the ABC network's 1990s teen favorite "My So-Called Life," to return and co-write the upcoming series "Huge" with her 24-year-old daughter, Savannah Dooley. "I've had a couple other writing partners, but writing with my mom is the best experience. We draw on the same stories, like the same things and are just so much alike," Ms. Dooley says.

"Optimistic and bright works for us," Mr. Lee says, of the types of shows the ABC Family network is developing.

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Brandy - posted on 07/06/2010

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I'm guessing that you didn't watch the show or else you might have felt it was relevant to mention the fact that Hanna's mother made an agreement with the detective to exchange sex for his silence in the matter. How's that for a helicopter parent? lol. I don't plan on letting my kids get away with everything. Their dad, however, wants to be the coolest dad and wants to be 'liked' by his kids. I'd rather them hate me for a little while during their rebellious years, then thank me for it later. I wish my parents were a little stricter on me. Mind you, they didn't realize just how much trouble I was getting into and probably never will unless I tell them bluntly to their faces. I love my parents alot and have good relationships with them but I could've really used a bit of discipline and maybe if they had paid more attention to where I was going and what I was doing, maybe I wouldn't have done alot of the stupid things I did. And with the people I was hanging out with, I'm lucky I was smart enough to not turn into a crack-addicted high school drop-out. No kidding, I had some very questionable friends that I've stopped seeing since having kids. And they how no idea how crazy these 'friends' of mine were. Some of them are very dangerous people and I was never questioned once about them by my parents. And when my brother wrote me a nasty letter stating all the reasons why I 'needed new friends', I showed it to my dad and my brother got into trouble. Alot of these people are now addicts and criminals with nothing to lose and some of them are dead. And now I'm not sure why I thought I fit in with them, I was kind of a goody goody, got good grades and never did drugs but those people definately put me in alot of dangerous situations and took advantage of me alot. I guess the fact that I never got into any real trouble despite the people I was hanging around shows how good my parents are but I don't think I should have been hanging around them anyways. Anyways, I think parents should be parents first and friends last.

Meghan - posted on 07/06/2010

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My mom was a hard ass. Then she split with my dad when I was 16 and she did turn into more a friend then a mom...we would stay up way late on school/work days and watch movies together (which was nice), let me and my friends have parties at the house (no booze allowed) but then around 18 she would take me out with her friends to drink or buy me smokes. (In her deffense I would have gotten them anyway and legal age is 19 here) Looking back though it was weird and I kinda wish she hadn't. I felt like there was a lot of pressure put on me to be her friend and she used me as a crutch to move on from my dad. And I think when I met my exs husband I really needed her to be my mom and strong voice of reasoning rather than a friend who just offered support. I may have just painted her in a a horrible light...she really is a great woman and she has been SO supportive and great to me and J.

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