With the rise in popularity of edgy dramas, sexually charged comedies, and reality programming of all sorts in recent years, prime-time television scripted with families in mind is barely an afterthought in the minds of network execs anymore.

Good luck finding more than a handful of programs on the schedule patterned after the likes of “The Cosby Show,” “Home Improvement,” or “7th Heaven.”

Where Has Family Friendly Programming on TV Gone?

Why, you ask? Critics and industry insiders say the distinct lack of family-based TV shows is as much market driven as culturally reflective. Says Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media in New York:

“It’s very difficult to program a show with broad-based family appeal. The notion that families are sitting in the living room and watching the same show together is more and more scarce. Shows have become so niche and hyper-targeted, so it’s just hard to put on a show that will appeal to all age groups and genders.”

There are many reasons families don’t sit together in front of the TV that much these days, writes Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times. One is that new technology offers endless entertainment alternatives, including iPods, video games, social media, as well as a ton of cable TV programming.

Since “the TV audience has scattered,” Braxton concludes, “programming has become more targeted to the individual viewer, not groups.”

Would you believe that in the mid-1970s the Federal Communications Commission pressured the top three networks to start a “family viewing hour” from 8 to 9 p.m.? While the policy only stood for a few years before the courts struck it down, that it existed at all would seem to demonstrate the gradual shift in what’s defined as “family friendly” to the present day.

A sitcom such as “Three’s Company,” for example—its mixed-gender-unmarried-roommates storyline considered taboo in the Me Decade and clearly not “family viewing hour” fare then—would likely fly well below whatever morality radar remains in 2011.

Where Has Family Friendly Programming on TV Gone?

Consider “Modern Family” and “Glee”—among the most popular TV shows of the moment. At first blush, such programs would seem to fit a family-friendly demographic. But after the first few minutes of just about any episode of either program, you find very adult themes and language that (one would think) are inappropriate for children.

And while reality-based programs such as “American Idol” have been touted as family-friendly—TV historian Tim Brooks noting that it’s “mostly clean-cut kids trying very hard”—not everything that glitters onstage is family-friendly gold.

Last month’s pilot of “The X Factor”—the latest brainchild of ex-Idol judge Simon Cowell—featured a  contestant who took off his pants during his performance. Judge Paula Abdul (another Idol judiciary alum) left the arena in disgust, straight up.

The lack of family-friendly scripted television is troubling to Melissa Henson, director of communications for the Parents Television Council, a Los Angeles-based watchdog group that most recently called for a boycott of NBC’s “The Playboy Club” (which was cancelled):

“Not everyone has the luxury of taking their kids to the movies. Being able to find something at home that families can watch at home is very important. There is a real hunger for programs like that. I wish Hollywood would be less worried about being edgy and more focused on stories and characters instead of controversy.”

The most prominent scripted programs that fit the family-friendly bill this season include:

  • ABC’s “The Middle” (the Patricia Heaton comedic vehicle about a lower middle class Midwestern family; 8.8 million viewers in a recent tally, which put it in 36th place);
  • Fox’s “Terra Nova,” an eco-action-adventure series about a family of five that travels 85 million years into the past to give humans a second chance at caring for Earth, has been described as “‘Little House on the Prairie’ with Dinosaurs”;
  • And a surprise hit, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” about a mother and daughter who mix fairy-tale fantasy with reality. It recently gave the network its highest demo rating for a scripted series in a couple of years, nabbing 12.79 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.

Says San Francisco Chronicle’s David Wiegand about “Once Upon a Time:”

“The show is not only great, fluffy fun, but note that it occupies a traditional family time slot on Sunday nights. For years, Sunday evenings were dominated by the Walt Disney anthology series under a variety of names for, at one time or another, three broadcast networks. ABC is clearly looking to revive that tradition. Family fare is tricky these days—shows that are too G-rated aren’t usually sophisticated enough for older members of the family. But Once Upon a Time is both family-friendly and smart enough to win viewers of any age and level of sophistication.”

Although a look at the quick-cut trailer for the new program starring Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love”) might give parents second thoughts:

Where Has Family Friendly Programming on TV Gone?

(h/t: TalkEntertainment; LA Times)