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Realscreen analysis: is TV ready to play happy families?

As the values of the understated Obamas make way for those of the ostentatious Trumps, we can expect to see a different kind of American family represented on screen, writes Keri Lewis Brown of K7 Media.

k7This shift coincides with numerous popular TV families either reaching the end of the road, or hitting media saturation point.

The Kardashians, for example, have now been on the air for ten years while the over-the-top antics of Duck Dynasty’s Robertson clan are due to come to an end in April after eleven seasons.

Always controversial, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was finally cancelled in 2014 after Alana Thompson’s mother ‘Mama June’ was linked to a sex offender.

Previously, it was big characters that sold a show. Now that the world’s biggest ever reality star Donald Trump has occupied the White House, it seems the public appetite for brash outrageous characters is well served by the headline news rather than reality TV.

Lifetime’s Howard Lee noted that seeing “a family getting along feels right at the moment”

How will the industry respond to this change? The signs may already be visible. At Realscreen’s annual Summit Showdown pitch competition on 24 January, two of the four pitches were about ordinary, hard-working Americans striving in the family business.

Kelly Sallaway of Rushbrook Media pitched docusoap The Royal Family about the Mitchells and their Memphis-based recording studio that has welcomed artists such as Rod Stewart and Bruno Mars through the doors.

This charming extended family were warm and sunny and appeared completely scandal-free. This certainly seemed to strike a chord. One of the judges, Howard Lee, executive VP of development and production at TLC, noted that “a family getting along feels right at the moment”, adding that “at TLC, we believe in family”.

The challenge for producers now is to create long-running storylines with ‘authentic’ likeable characters who aren’t likely to create a storm on Twitter

But where’s the drama if everyone gets along? The competition’s winning pitch offers one possible answer.

Adventure Kings came to the contest from Peter Reiss of production house The Woodshed, and features another family business. Described as a travelogue-docusoap hybrid, the show follows a pair of brothers who run a company making action sports films. It looked like those nice wholesome siblings got along too. One of them had a wife and even appeared to like her. No voices were raised, no rivalries inflamed.

The challenge for producers now is to create long-running storylines with ‘authentic’ likeable characters who aren’t likely to create a storm on Twitter. It may be that if these two shows get off the ground, the emphasis will be less on the families themselves and more on the unique worlds they inhabit.

In a world of continuous uncertainty and simmering conflict, the representation of ordinary families who love each other will become increasingly reassuring

The Mitchell family can take you in to the recording studio to meet a different recording star each week and the Jones brothers can take you up a mountain for a dangerous film shoot. The drama comes less from the internal frictions of the family in question, and more from the way they interact with the outside world.

Indeed, one of the hottest unscripted shows in the world right now is Gogglebox, which features a recurring cast of characters in their family homes. They might disagree on the TV shows they are watching but they certainly get along. The UK version’s Leon and June clearly adore each other and it is endearing to watch. Meanwhile, Channel 5 recently cancelled a show about dysfunctional families.

In a world of continuous uncertainty and simmering conflict, the representation of ordinary families who love each other will become increasingly reassuring.

Keri Lewis Brown is the managing director of TV research and analysis specialist K7 Media