Cable television is fiercely niche and competitive, and no programming makes that more obvious than family entertainment. As we head into the holiday season, which for good and for bad is all about family, let’s take a look at how marketers approach this important but very divergent group.

Today, it seems no one member of a family will watch any one piece of content on any same screen at the same time. Even as content is created, it gets sent out in the world, parsed into ever smaller number of audience directions. This is the new television and content reality. But before we tunnel back into our niches, I want to talk about the importance of a big cultural term, family.

An examination of the cultural roots and importance of family can help us tell more meaningful stories for our audiences.

Doing creative work around family is tricky because, well, family is obvious, right? Truth is, family is symbolic and functional, meaning its ordinariness belies its significance. Practically speaking, when doing brand work this means we wear a couple of hats: we’ve got to rely on data and demography while framing out a big picture, while having the creative and emotional flexibility to find the art, awe and integrity in today’s family.

Culture and History

The “nuclear” family, a husband, wife and kids, began to emerge around the 13th century in Northern Europe for many complicated reasons, but largely as an answer to changing economic times. This definition of family was above all things functional. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the term “family” gained new cultural layers of meaning beyond industrialism. Families became a cultural “hearth” against the harsh world of economic warfare or the “sweet” retreat against the dark forces of city life.

In the 21st century, family has evolved beyond the nuclear arrangement to include married, separated, divorced, single, same-sex and extended familial arrangements. Family is now less a legal bond and more an intimate bond. It’s an an inner core of concentric circles making up our important people, from mom and dad to grandparents and extended relatives, BFFs and outward.

Nolan Gould, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell star in ABC’s Modern Family. Photo credit: ABC/Eddy Chen.
Nolan Gould, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell star in ABC’s “Modern Family.” Photo credit: ABC/Eddy Chen.

Data and demographic trends are clear: families are blending and combining with men and women reinventing roles for themselves along the way.

Home-Makers

Family is a mash-up of the old and new, traditional and modern, wrapped in all its complications. As we’ve evolved, family is now more an individual art, the art of making a home where moms and dads, grandparents, aunts and close friends come together to create their interpretation of the classic.

Today, people who make families care less about measuring up to an ideal, preferring a much more pragmatic approach. They want to expertly learn while doing—empowering themselves to define themselves for society, not the other way around. They are entitled in the best sense of the word to decide everything from birthing style to parenting ethos to school systems. It’s Full House grown up and without irony. Parents want to leave their unique imprint on our American sacred institution.

“Making” a family is as much a blend of the old with the new social world. As a partner in a same-sex couple household put it, “we want the traditions of childhood in a nontraditional setting.”

The WTFamily

Family and television are inextricably connected in our minds and in cultural media history. That’s because, from its beginnings, TV families belonged to us viewers. Families are designated and open to us for examination, and to help us better understand ourselves.

This remains true. In the 21st century, however, rather than the highly polished gloss of family life, it’s the family parody we love. Not just the mocking parodies, but the gentle ones that make for the richest family stories. In comedy or drama, it’s families trying to stay a “family” as they make up new rules, fail and try again. It’s the blending of families mashed up, sped up and in slow motion. Whatever the family configuration, we’re rapt because these situations speak directly to our shared personal and demographic realities.

The critically acclaimed Good Wife is a great example. The show starts with the dramatic ending of a sham of a marriage. From this plot point we pivot right into the messy aftermath: we experience what’s next for the protagonist and the choreography of those around her—wife, mother, husband and kids—who are all trying to recreate themselves and their family. In their own ways too, Empire, Mom, Modern Family, and Jane The Virgin have their unique storyline into the art of family choreography.

Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray in the “My Bad Parts” episode of “Empire.” Photo credit: FOX/Chuck Hodes.
Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray in the “My Bad Parts” episode of “Empire.” Photo credit: FOX/Chuck Hodes.

Friends, BFFs

Twenty years after its debut, Friends still speaks about the importance of mutually supporting one another. In a recent The New York Times article, Ginia Bellafante talked to young viewers who watched Friends reruns not because of the show’s glossy patina. No, viewers see through ideal careers and days willed away at the coffee shop. What pulls them into the show, especially those in high school, the so-called Generation Z, are the interactions among the characters. There is not just support for one another, but the characters also have no traces of “corrosive ambition” toward one another. They want to help each other out, acting as an outer extension of the family and reflecting our modern version of it.

An Emotional Unit Family bonds and emotions rule us humans; we just don’t always recognize it. Any respectable creative who wants to tell a story understands the power of family emotions, but family is a paradoxical truism: Who doesn’t love the broad warm hug of family?

But it’s the murkier details, the Shakespearean drama and conflicts that can stop us dead in our creative tracks. It’s got to be the right story of family, told from a distant yet still resonant tone.

From the perspective of brands, this history and interplay means we’ve got to be deep in trends, while still maintaining a sense of the big picture in the face of the quickly changing family. When it comes to family, it’s best to neither pander nor idealize to sell.

There’s an old Jewish saying that goes, “Don’t boil your children to make into spoons.” Once you get past that gruesome imagery, it essentially warns against exploiting kids for family gain.

The same can be applied to those of us in the television and brand business. We often think the data is going to drive our creative, and help us understand everything there is to know about the audiences we are trying to reach. But relying on data to the extent that it boils us down to just “eyeballs chasing screens” means that we miss out on the messy context that is today’s modern family.

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About Kate Canada Obregon:

Kate Canada Obregon, PhD is Chief Strategy Officer/Co-Founder of Oishii Creative, where she heads strategy and research for the creative solutions company. She writes regularly and tracks the latest research on social science and the neuroscience of creativity, incorporating her findings into the Oishii Creative methodology and practice.

Cube image courtesy of The New York Times via NBC


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