Originally created 03/15/04

Network changes don't always rate with Hopkins family

PLACENTIA, Calif. -- TV networks are scheming to keep viewers riveted all year round, but for the Hopkins family, summer still belongs to the world outside and not to the TV set inside.

As broadcasters angle to meet new challenges from cable, DVDs and other technology, sometimes the Hopkins resist, sometimes they respond - and sometimes they don't even notice.

Their response is as mixed as the grab bag of changes being tossed their way by networks increasingly in flux.

The Hopkins home, in an upscale Orange County neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles, has three TV sets plus cable boxes, DVD players and VCRs - but no home-entertainment shrine with big-screen TV sets, digital-recording units and elaborate sound systems.

In fact, the Hopkins recently dropped their premium cable service, saving a few bucks after realizing they mostly watched broadcast networks and basic cable: the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon for Stephanie, 14, and Allison, 11; CNBC and Fox Sports World for Pete Hopkins, 47, a sales executive with Federal Express.

Not that television isn't a regular part of their lives. Christie Hopkins, 42, a financial analyst for the local school district, confesses to an all-encompassing reality TV addiction, citing "The Bachelor," "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and others.

The Hopkins aren't alone in making changes: Networks are trying to reinvent themselves with year-round programming; in-show product placement to thwart ad skippers; "supersized" episodes that spill over their regular time slots and, of course, more sexuality.

The effect on this one household is hit-and-miss.

They did discover Fox's "American Idol" when it was launched two years ago in summer, traditionally the rerun dead zone until broadcasters decided to fight back against cable's fresh fare.

The reality genre has triumphantly spilled into the regular TV season and networks now see summer as a valuable launch pad. But the Hopkins have mixed feelings about new shows bumping summer reruns.

"Because there's a lot of reality stuff on that we watch, we've missed a lot of 'Friends,"' Stephanie said. "So I kind of look forward to summer to catch up."

Still, the family has a lot of plans this summer that don't include TV: camping, the pool, soccer, the mall.

If anything, and if dad has his way, Stephanie and Allison will get less time to commune with television and more time in the California sunshine. "We just brought a tent trailer and we're going to be spending most of our time camping on the weekends," Pete said.

The family brushes away questions about product placement. They notice the soda prominently displayed during "American Idol," but don't mind. In fact, Stephanie quickly turns the conversation to a critique of recent ads (hated the mouthwash one, loved the actress in the yogurt spot).

"I know the advertisers have a place in the whole scheme of things," Pete Hopkins said.

Another programming trend, the supersized shows (so dubbed by NBC) intended to keep viewers on board and quash channel-flipping, draws a mixed response.

The kids don't mind and don't heed it - "I can start from the middle of a show and not care," said Stephanie. But it does make Christie Hopkins a bit more likely to stick with the network at hand.

Pete notes there's a way to outmaneuver the network maneuvering. With their Adelphia cable system, he said, the family can check the evening's TV menu and highlight shows they want to watch. "So when the reminder pops up, I'll know to change the channel and go to the other show," he said.

Technology also helps the parents keep a close eye on what their daughters see, with the family relying on TV ratings and an electronic filtering system since "day one," said Pete Hopkins.

"Mom has from PG-14 and up blocked and only she and my dad know the code," said Stephanie, without a hint of teenage complaint.

When the girls want to watch a show that pushes the ratings envelope - such as "Friends" - the parents are right there alongside them.

"Sometimes it's the right decision, sometimes it's not," Pete said. "We'll give our personal opinions on certain subjects so they know how we feel about it: 'That's not something you should wear' or 'That's not appropriate behavior."'

When his daughters echo those opinions, Pete said, "I know my influence is getting through to them." His own father, he recalls, used to limit viewing to educational shows and made his children earn their TV time through chores.

Janet Jackson's Super Bowl peep show reinforced concerns about slipping TV standards. Christie, the mom, said the context mattered as much as the content: The Britney-Madonna kiss on MTV is one thing, a family event on CBS is another.

Leaning against a carefully folded American flag afghan covering the back of her sofa, the mom also complained that Kid Rock performing on the halftime show wearing an American flag poncho was disrespectful.

"They're just getting a little too carried away," she said.

Pete said he was glad to see Mel Karmazin, president of CBS parent company Viacom Inc., testify before Washington lawmakers. His wife thinks increasing fines for those who violate broadcast standards is "a good idea."

Such concerns aside, Christie estimates she watches about four hours of evening TV. Her daughters, in bed by 9 p.m., are kept to a couple hours; Stephanie expects even less tube time because she's added swim team to her schedule.

Pete, who sticks to stock reports and soccer, is pondering another family TV-avoidance scheme:

"I might take the money I saved on the premium channels and get a gym membership."


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