Channeling values: Which new TV shows are family-friendly?

Every fall television networks roll out their new shows and, Focus on the Family's Steven Isaac says, "every year the pickings get slimmer and slimmer" in the area of family-friendly programming.

"The trends all point toward desperate television executives and producers watching their ratings slip while trying to fight for eyeballs that are currently glued to the Internet and cable," said Isaac, who is the group's "Plugged In Online" editor.

"The prevailing wisdom seems to be that edgy is the only way to stand out," he said. "More sex. More foul language. More violence."

As the networks parade their new lineup, groups like Focus on the Family, concerned about family and religious values, are cautious to critical. And some see bright spots.

A recent study of the Parents Television Council watchdog group revealed an increasing volume of sex, violence and profane language during the family hour between 8 and 9 p.m. Eastern time.

The council found that instances of violence during that time had increased 52.4 percent since it conducted a similar study in 2001, and sexual content grew 22.1 percent.

Of the new fall shows, Melissa Henson, senior director of programs for the council, said she isn't enthusiastic about any of them as family-friendly.

Sadly, she said, "The trend is toward the dissolution of the family hour."

Now, the cleanest offerings seem to be reality shows such as "Dancing With the Stars," "Deal or No Deal," "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," she said.

She also is encouraged by "Friday Night Lights," which she said has positive messages and is "one of the most explicitly pro-faith television shows out there."

"Generally, there is a lack of effort and imagination on the part of script writers, who think you have to be hokey to be family-friendly," Henson said.

Harry Forbes, director of the Office for Film and Broadcasting for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that in 2005 he was distressed at the high level of sex and violence in many of the network offerings.

"But last year, possibly because of FCC pressure, network pilots were considerably less objectionable," he said.

After viewing many of this year's fall shows, he said "on the whole they seem to be maintaining last year's somewhat higher standards."

One new show, a sitcom based on the experiences of a Muslim exchange student and his American host family, is especially catching the attention of American Muslims.

Zulfiqar Malik of Overland Park, Kan., is looking forward to it. And so are other area Muslims he's talked to, said Malik, who is a director of the Heartland Muslim Council.

The comedy, "Aliens in America," will air at 8:30 p.m. EDT Mondays on CW beginning Oct. 1.

Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, said most religious communities complain about being misrepresented in American media.

"Muslims have it the worst," she said. "Their depictions are full of inaccuracies and negative stereotypes."

But lately she is encouraged that some in the media are making an effort to depict Muslims in a fair and balanced way.

The very name of the show, "Aliens in America," evokes the negative perception that this new Muslim immigrant "is from Mars or somewhere (from outer space)," she said.

But she thinks the depiction of Raja as slightly quirky, thoughtful, friendly and not at all extreme will dispel negative perceptions.

"The show gives the average American a glimpse into Muslim culture, and it is great that an everyday American can get to know a mainstream Muslim," she said.

Malik, who also compiles and edits the electronic newsletter Muslim News Digest, said "most readers of the digest have reacted positively to the forthcoming comedy series and hope that it will break the stereotyping of Muslims, overcome prejudices and respect diversity."

He said the "alien" aspects of the show are because the host family initially has many concerns, apprehensions and fears of the unknown, but as the family becomes more familiar with their guest they develop an understanding of him and friendship.

Malik especially can identify with the main character, called Raja, not only because he is Muslim but also because Malik, like Raja, is from Pakistan.

"The show reminds me of the days I first migrated to America's heartland from Pakistan 37 years ago," he said. "And I experienced that assimilating in a new society requires adjustments without compromising one's values and faith."

However, John Mulderig, media reviewer with the Catholic film and broadcasting office, who along with Forbes watched the fall pilots, said, "a lot of the humor is lowbrow."

"The actor (Adhir Kalyan) is the best thing about the show, and there is a positive presentation of his character," he said. "He prays and relies on God to see him through difficulties. He has a strong faith. But the series' overall humor undercuts those positive qualities to a large extent."

Of the new shows, Mulderig said the best one he previewed for families to watch together is "Life Is Wild," which will air at 8 p.m. Sundays on CW beginning Oct. 7. This is about a family that goes to South Africa, where the veterinarian dad cares for wild animals.

For Forbes, the best show he previewed for adults and older adolescents could be "Pushing Daisies," which will air at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC beginning Oct. 3. The main character can raise the dead with a touch, but if he touches them again, they die.

"There are serious moral implications of such a premise," Forbes said, "but if you view it as a fantasy, it's arguably acceptable, and beyond that, sex, violence and language quotients seem reasonably low."

Forbes also liked "Life," which will air at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC beginning this week. It's about a policeman who is exonerated and back on the force 12 years after he had been framed for a crime.

"The title is meant to be a pun on both his original sentence and his positive, life-affirming attitude," Forbes said. "He's extremely empathetic to people's problems and circumstances and makes a compelling hero."

Mulderig also likes "K-Ville," which began last week at 9 p.m. Mondays on Fox. This is a police drama set in New Orleans after Katrina.

His other pick is "Dirty Sexy Money," which will air at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC beginning this week.

"You would expect it to be sordid," he said, "but the title is merely a come-on for an intelligent adult drama with little overtly objectionable content, though there is one storyline about a politician's relationship with a transsexual."

"One female character is about to be married for the fourth time, but no one's presenting her as a role model," he said with a laugh.

Mulderig said "Big Shots," which will air at 10 p.m. Thursdays on ABC beginning this week, gets low marks for scenes with pretty explicit sexual activity and a transsexual prostitute.

High on Henson's list of particularly bad family shows are "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Big Shots."

"They are part of this pattern that sex is only exciting if it is only extramarital," she said.

She also expects "Cashmere Mafia," which will air at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC beginning Nov. 27, "to be pretty raunchy."

One show that particularly concerns her is "Kid Nation," which began airing last week at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS. This is about young people setting up and running their own society.

"The concern is, for starters, that there was no adult supervision for the kids," Henson said. "The kids were not allowed to contact their families. So it seems that they (the producers) put the entertainment of adults above the well-being of the kids."

Viewers who want family-friendly shows will have to do more than give vocal support, Henson said.

"You have to back up your words with actions," she said. "You have to support family programming by watching."