Family Dramas Feel Like Home

The traditional one-hour family drama genre, once a staple of primetime TV lineups but in recent years pushed to the backburner by darker, more provocative drama projects, is once again beginning to find its footing with the recent success of two freshman series.

Hallmark Channel’s Chesapeake Shores finished its inaugural campaign last month as the most-watched original scripted series in the network’s history, while broadcaster NBC’s This Is Us has launched this past September as one of the most watched new series of the 2016-17 television season.


The two shows, with their heart-tugging optimism and relationship-themed plotlines, are going against the grain of today’s most popular scripted series which offer a darker, more sinister and pessimistic view of human nature. Nevertheless, the shows are tapping into an underserved audience of both older and surprisingly young viewers looking for more positive and uplifting programming options, programming executives said.

“There are a lot of great television shows out there but many are darker and edgier and have a supernatural twist,” Hallmark Channel executive vice president of programming Michelle Vicary said. “That’s a great television experience on other networks, but we found that there’s an audience for family dramas, if you do it right.”

Hallmark’s multigenerational family drama Chesapeake Shores, based on a novel series by Sherryl Woods, averaged 2.7 million viewers on a Nielsen live-plus-3 basis during its 10- episode run that ended last month, making it the most-watched original scripted series in network history.

Chesapeake Shores also finished as one of Hallmark Channel’s youngestskewing series, drawing more 18-49 year old female viewers than its other scripted content. Vicary attributed that youth appeal to the strength of Woods’s book franchise, as well as the well-written characters and storylines.

Chesapeake Shores has proven to us that there is a bigger audience across the board for family dramas than one might think,” she said.

This Is Us, which follows a family of three kids — two siblings and an adopted child with the same birthday — throughout their childhood and adult lives, is arguably the surprise hit of the new television season. Through five episodes, its installments have posted the five highest ratings number among all telecasts of the Big Four networks’ 10 first-year dramas so far this season, according to network officials. The Oct. 25 episode averaged a season-high 8.7 million viewers.

Amy Winter, executive vice president and general manager of family-targeted network UP, believes that the success of This Is Us shows there is an audience yearning for more family dramas.

UP, which this past summer rebranded its service to focus on family-themed programming and acquired the rights to such family-themed dramas as Parenthood, will debut in 2017 its own one-hour family drama, Date My Dad, about three daughters who look to support their widowed father by searching for a companion for him.

“While they do have a certain soapiness to them, I would say that some of the stickiest plotlines that you ever see out there do relate to love and family and relationships that exist within the family,” Winter said. “Usually at the center of those dramas are people that feel like family to you, and you want to root for, and you end up picking your favorites.”


Winter also said that the family-drama genre appeals to viewers at the older end of the millennial demographic, age 25-34, who are settling down with families and seeking programming they can identify with to watch along with their kids.

“Some of these noisier, darker high-concept shows are definitely in the zeitgeist right now, but shows like This Is Us are proof that when you have quality storytelling, word of mouth will travel and people will come to it,” Winter said. “There’s also a misperception that the cooler, edgier and darker you go, the more you capture the younger side of this audience, but the quality storytelling in these one-hour dramas goes beyond something that might be more gimmicky.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.