10 Elements of a Great Family TV Series
The core elements of developing a TV series for the whole family are — in the eyes of network and streamer executives — a culmination of business decisions. They want to offer content for the entire family because that drives higher ratings and streaming subscribers.
But what kinds of things go into making those decisions? Which factors play the biggest role in how a family TV series gets made and which elements should you include in your TV pilot to catch the eye of TV executives?
First, let's go over the demographics targeted for family-friendly TV shows.
Networks and streamers want to cover niche audiences with their content. But they also want to drive numbers by creating four-quadrant content.
Audience Breakdown for Movies
For movies, Hollywood generally breaks up its marketing strategy markers into four quadrants:
- Males Under 25
- Females Under 25
- Males Over 25
- Females Over 25
Four-quadrant movies hit all four of those demographic quadrants.
Audience Breakdown for TV
This four-quadrant approach is very similar for TV network and streaming series, but the ages skew younger and slightly older. While there's no definitive bracket, you could break a four-quadrant TV series as:
- Grade School Males and Females (and their binary counterparts)
- Middle School Males and Females (and their binary counterparts)
- High School Males and Females (and their binary counterparts)
- Parents Over 30
The Evolution of Content
Back in the 1980s, family-driven TV series like Family Ties, Growing Pains, and The Cosby Show were so popular because they offered something for parents and their grade school, middle school, and high school-age children. In the decades before, shows like Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch, Good Times, and dozens of other family situational comedies (sitcoms) brought the whole family together for primetime viewing.
Times have changed, though. The laugh track sitcom isn't as prevalent as it used to be. Audiences have become far less conservative, allowing parents to take more chances with series that contain more serious social issues.
One unique factor that plays into this is that most parents today were raised in the 1980s and 1990s, during a time when movies and TV series marketed to children were actually pretty dark and scary. Look no further than movies like:
- The Goonies
- Jurassic Park
All were considered family movies in their time. And all had very dark subject matter and visuals about death, danger, violence, murder, dismemberment, and overall scary situations and visuals. So today's parents offer their children a little more leeway regarding those types of story elements.
10 Elements of a Great Family TV Show
Despite that, there still remain some boundaries, guidelines, and expectations regarding TV series geared toward the whole family.
With that in mind, here we share ten key elements of a successful TV series for the whole family.
Relatable Story and Character Arcs
It doesn't matter if the setting is in outer space, Middle Earth, or a small town with an alternate reality called the Upside Down. It also doesn't matter if the series is set in the past, present, or future.
The key element is that the story and characters are relatable to the family demographics.
You can have stories about kings, queens, princes, and princesses. But you also need to ground those elements with familiar and relatable family dynamics that are universal to all. Family audiences may not relate to living in castles and fighting off evil threats. However, they can relate to character dynamics of:
- Parental Love
- Sibling Rivalry
So, whatever the genre and setting, fantastical or contemporary reality, always offer relatable story and character arcs that families can identify with. That's what will keep them invested in the story and characters.
Lack of Sexual Content
Implied sex can be present (the before and the after), but family shows don't showcase sex scenes as a draw because that alienates children and younger adults — which means their parents are alienated as well because they're not going to watch those series with their children (or allow them to watch such series on their own).
Yes, the discussion of sex can be present in today's family shows. In fact, some of the great family sitcoms of the past touched on such subjects with groundbreaking commentary. But sex can never be a draw for the series (à la Game of Thrones).
Lack of Foul Language
Network shows won't allow it. Streamers have the freedom to work around censors, but most parents don't want to watch a series that is packed full of foul language.
Lack of Gratuitous Human-Centered Blood and Gore
We have many family-driven series with violence (Cobra Kai). We also have science fiction and horror-related series that have some blood and gore (Stranger Things). However, they very rarely showcase any human-related blood and gore. Anytime any such visuals are present, it's almost always via an alien lifeform.
Humor is a universal tool that brings people together. You can have family show characters fighting for their lives, battling enemies, and dealing with dramatic conflicts. But finding the levity within those moments is a key way to make the viewing experience more palpable for family members of all ages. Humor and levity are necessary for all family shows.
Beyond that, there's the additional element of peppering a series with multi-layered humor and levity. Pixar has mastered this in its films and streaming series with humor that plays on multiple levels of maturity.
- Slapstick or physical humor for the younger kids.
- Gross-out humor for the older kids.
- More mature humor that only older kids and adults would understand.
Read ScreenCraft's 10 Styles of Comedy Screenwriters Can Master!
Kids in Lead and Supporting Roles
Having younger characters in key roles within the series allows you to target the "young" quadrant while adding new levels of dramatic tension and comedy for adults. Again, with a four-quadrant series, you need to cater to each quadrant.
This doesn't mean that you need to include a grade school character, a middle school character, and a high school character. Pick and choose. Grad school characters look up to middle school and high school kids, and middle school and high school kids can identify with how things were when they were in grade school.
But you do need some kids in the mix for most family TV series. And having them as featured characters is vital.
Don't Talk Down to the Kids
If we can learn anything from the 1980s movies, it's that kids don't need to be talked down to. Since you're catering to multiple demographics, you never want to condescend to any of them. Kids are smart. And they are much more sophisticated than we think. Back in the 1980s, studios realized that and didn't treat the younger audience as not worthy of being able to understand real-world situations and scenarios.
Look no further than Stranger Things, which has become one of the most successful family shows of all time. Middle schoolers and high schoolers relate to those characters. Why? Because the writers understand that children of those ages go through some of the most difficult times of their lives as they come of age. This leads us to our next key element...
In cinematic form, catharsis is the feeling we feel after the story's resolution and the protagonist's overall journey. In series form, it's how we feel at the end of an episode when a character — or set of characters — gets through their internal and external conflict of the episode.
Catharsis is a vital ingredient of the viewing experience. As we mentioned before, you want to present relatable story and character moments. And you want to present those moments in cathartic ways that leave family members strongly affected and changed.
- Make them relate to the loss of a loved one.
- Make them remember what it was like to fall in love for the first time.
- Make them appreciate and treasure their family members and friends.
Read ScreenCraft's The Single Most Important Element of a Screenplay (Catharsis)!
First Loves, Enduring Loves, Forever Loves
Love is the most universal theme.
- That first crush.
- The one that got away.
- The one everyone wants to meet.
- The love you didn't see but was there right in front of your eyes.
- The love that seemed unattainable.
Everyone can relate to themes of love — no matter what their age.
- Parents can relate to the first love stories.
- Kids can aspire to meet their first love.
- Parents can remember the heartbreak they went through.
- Kids can relate to the heartbreak they may be going through at school.
And these types of story and character arcs are great conversation topics for families as well.
Pack Episodes with Life Lessons
Again, it's about catharsis. You want each of those family members to turn the TV off and feel affected by what they just saw.
- Make them laugh because they relate to what they just saw.
- Make them cry because they have either gone through the same thing or empathize with the characters and what they've gone through.
- Make them think.
Life imitates art. Art imitates life. The young and the old can learn from your show.
- You can remind them how important family values are.
- You can remind them how much they mean to one another.
- You can even make them realize where they are lacking in life, whether in their family dynamics or beyond.
Parents want their kids to learn life lessons in any way possible. And sometimes it's difficult to teach your kids life lessons because kids don't often want to listen and can't fathom that their parents dealt with the very same struggles they are dealing with in life.
However, a TV series showcasing those life lessons can be the happy messenger parents and their kids need.
Read ScreenCraft's 101 Family-Friendly Story Prompts!
There's no secret formula to a successful family TV series. Some won't include some of these elements. Others will hit all ten without missing a single one. But consider these ten key elements as a compass pointing towards the best possible family viewing experience you could offer family audiences.
Read ScreenCraft's Seventy Family-Friendly Scripts You Can Download Right Now!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies