Families and Television

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Families and television are practically inseparable. Although television sets are now prominently featured in restaurants, airports, lounges, and the like, the center of television viewing remains in households and with families.

The relationship between families and television is symbiotic. Television depends on families for viewership and to buy the wares it advertises, thereby keeping the television industry financially solvent. Families depend heavily on television for information and entertainment, for subject matter for conversation and casual interaction, and for many other social and psychological functions.

Despite these mutual dependencies, families often have a love-hate relationship with television. Judging from the immense quantity of time modern families spend watching television programs, one might assume that television would be liked and admired by most if not all families. In fact, television is widely criticized for the negative effects it allegedly has on family members, especially children. Included in this criticism are concerns about the way families are portrayed on television and the negative effects television programming has on family values.

The Changing Family

When people talk about the family, undoubtedly many think of the "classical" nuclear family. However, modern families only rarely are accurately characterized by stereotypical images of Dad, Mom, Sis, and Junior. The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has conducted annual nationwide surveys about families since the early 1970s. An NORC report entitled "The Emerging 21st Century American Family" (Smith, 1999) indicates just how much the American family evolved in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The following are some of the major changes that have been observed:

  • whereas at the beginning of the 1980s most American families included children, by the year 2000 just 38 percent of homes included children,
  • although two married parents with children aptly described the typical family unit a generation ago, by the year 2000 that type of family could be found in only one in four households,
  • the most typical household in the year 2000 was that of an unmarried person with no children, which accounted for one-third of all U.S. households (double the 1990 rate),
  • whereas three out of four adults were married a generation ago, only slightly more than half of them were by the year 2000,
  • divorce rates more than doubled between the 1960s and the 1990s,
  • the number of women giving birth out of wedlock increased dramatically over the past generation, from 5 percent of births to nearly one-third of births, and
  • the portion of children living with a single parent increased over one generation from one out of twenty to approximately one out of five children.

In other words, those who see families only in stereotypical terms of a mother, father, and two-plus children have a very inaccurate image of families.

The Changing Television

As David Atkin (2000) noted, it is best to conceive of television as a dynamically changing variable. In fact, television may have changed even more than have families since the early 1970s.

Many of television's most notable changes have happened within the family context. A generation ago, the typical family had a single television that was located in the living room or the family room. As the twenty-first century began, television sets were scattered throughout the home and had become increasingly portable. A national survey conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation (Rideout et al., 1999) revealed that, whereas 35 percent of homes in 1970 had more than one television set, 88 percent of homes had more than one set in the year 2000. In fact, 66 percent of households surveyed had three television sets, 20 percent of homes had four sets, and 12 percent had five or more sets.

Programming sources changed as dramatically as the number of receivers. As recently as the mid-1970s, what had been seen on television was determined largely by the relatively homogeneous programming of three major commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and the somewhat divergent programming of one public network (PBS); by the year 2000, what was viewed on the household's many sets was in part determined by whether signals were delivered by cable, satellite, broadcast, VCR, DVD, the Internet, or other sources; whether the viewer subscribed to premium services; and by the type of programming the viewer preferred.

Television changed dramatically in many other ways during the last quarter of the twentieth century—in terms of technology, network ownership, regulation, audience research, finances, and other factors too numerous to mention. Perhaps the most important way that television changed in terms of family use, however, was that as the twentieth century drew to a close, many parents appeared to be relinquishing their control of the television set to the children. Two findings from the Kaiser Family Foundation survey (Rideout et al., 1999) are illustrative: In 1970, 6 percent of sixth graders had a television set in their bedroom; by the year 2000, 77 percent of sixth graders had a working television set in their bedroom. Moreover, by the year 2000, approximately one-half (49%) of children did not have any rules about how much or what kind of television they could watch. These changing norms regarding parental "gatekeeping" suggest that attention needs to be paid to how families use television.

Family Use of Television

Throughout the 1990s, Nielsen Media Research has reported that a television in the typical American household is turned on for approximately seven hours per day. These findings indicate that, after sleeping and working, television watching consumes the largest share of a typical American's time.

Although television viewing varies considerably by household, Jennifer Kotler, John Wright, and Aletha Huston (2000) have identified some useful developmental and demographic trends in viewership. Children from two to five years of age watch between two and three hours of broadcast or cable television per day, and they spend nearly thirty minutes per day watching videos. Their television diet is made up largely of "edutainment" programming and cartoons. Children from six to twelve years of age watch television slightly less than preschoolers, in large part because they are in school several hours per day. This age group watches a lot of cartoons, comedies, and music television. Teenagers watch less television than younger children and tend to watch music television, comedies featuring younger casts, and reality programming.

Among adult family members, women watch more television than do men. Older adults watch more than younger adults. Viewing differences also vary by educational and ethnic factors. George Comstock (1991) has pointed out that highly educated and economically advantaged families watch less television than their less educated and poorer counterparts, and that African-American and Hispanic-American families watch more television that European Americans, even when socioeconomic status is controlled.

Roper Organization surveys indicate that more than two-thirds of the American public turn to television as their major source of news. When asked what medium they would most want to keep if they could have only one, respondents to the Roper polls between 1959 and 1999 chose television; since 1967, television has held more than a two-to-one advantage over its nearest rival, the newspaper. As a possible indication of things to come, the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll (Rideout et al., 1999) reported that more children (eight years of age and older) said they would choose computers rather than television, if they were forced to pick only one medium.

Portrayals of Families on Television

The importance of the way families are presented on television was clearly stated by Stephanie Coontz (1992, p. 23) in a sociological history of American families:

Our most powerful visions of traditional families derive from images that are still delivered to our homes in countless reruns of 1950s television sit-coms. When liberals and conservatives debate family policy, for example, the issue is often framed in terms of how many "Ozzie and Harriet" families are left in America.

Several scholars have systematically examined how families are portrayed on television. Perhaps the most comprehensive examination is an investigation titled "Five Decades of Families on Television" by James D. Robinson and Thomas Skill (2000). In this study, 630 fictional television series that featured a family and were telecast between 1950 and 1995 were examined: 85 from the 1950s, 98 from the 1960s, 139 from the 1970s, 175 from the 1980s, and 133 from the first five years of the 1990s. All of these series aired on one of four commercial networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC); 72 percent were situation comedies (sitcoms) and 28 percent were dramas. The investigators profiled numerous ways in which the depiction of families on television has evolved over time, several of which are noteworthy.

One major change over time has been in the type of programming in which families are portrayed. In the 1950s, 85 percent of the families portrayed were in situation comedies and 15 percent were in dramas. The proportion of families depicted in situation comedies decreased to 77 percent in the 1960s and to 65 percent in the 1970s. At this point, a slight reversal of this trend occurred, with 67 percent of television's families presented in situation comedies in the 1980s and 76 percent in situation comedies in the 1990s.

Families with children have become increasingly prominent in television programs over time. In the 1950s, 25 percent of television's families were childless; in the 1960s, 24 percent had no children; in the 1970s, 23 percent; in the 1980s, 17 percent; and in the 1990s, fewer than 3 percent of the families on television were childless. Whereas a decreasing proportion of real-life families had children as the twentieth century progressed, television featured a countervailing trend.

A similar pattern of disparity in real-world and television families was also found in terms of the size of families. As has been mentioned, the size of America's real families decreased rather dramatically as the twentieth century progressed. In contrast, television families tended to get larger over time. In the 1950s, the average television family had 1.8 children; during the 1960s, 2.0 children; during the 1970s, 2.4 children; in the 1980s, 2.2 children; and during the 1990s, 2.5 children. Although the reasons for the divergence in these trends between real and television families are not entirely clear, it seems plausible that television writers and producers find it easier to create comedic and dramatic plots when children are part of the family. Nevertheless, with both trends, television is becoming less and less realistic in presenting representative families.

Jannette Dates and Carolyn Stroman (2000) systematically examined racial and ethnic depictions of families in a chapter titled "Portrayals of Families of Color on Television." They concluded that the social realities of African-American, Asian-American, Native American, and Latino-American families have not been portrayed accurately; rather, their portrayals are the stylized views of a small number of decision makers in the television industry.

In contrast, trends in television families have tended to mirror trends in real families on other essential dimensions. For example, the number of married people heading households has dropped, from a high of 68.2 percent during the 1950s to a low of 39.8 percent in the 1990s, paralleling census findings.

In many instances, substantial differences between television and real families have been found over the years. For example, the "empty nest" family (in which children are grown and living away from home) has been a common configuration for real families for decades, yet such families are seldom presented on television. According to the analysis of Robinson and Skill (2000), no such families appeared on television in the 1950s or during the first half of the 1990s, and the only decade in which more than 1 percent of television's families were empty nesters was the 1980s. On the other hand, families consisting of children and a single-parent father are rare according to census data, ranging from 1 percent in the 1950s to just over 3 percent in the 1990s. Yet, such families consistently have been prominent on television, ranging from 17 percent in the 1950s, to a high of 28 percent in the 1970s, to 23 percent in the 1990s. In some of these instances, it would appear that television's deviation from real-world orthodoxy may initially have been arbitrary; however, when such conventions arose, they have tended to remain part of television's popular culture. What effects, if any, such aberrant depictions have on the viewers' perceptions of reality has been of interest to numerous scholars.

Do Television's Families Affect Viewers' Families?

Public concerns about the way families are depicted on television typically are grounded in assumptions that family portrayals on television will be assimilated into the psychological reality of the viewing public. Theories such as Albert Bandura's (1994) social cognitive theory or George Gerbner's cultivation theory (e.g., Gerbner et al., 1994) suggest that such media effects can and do occur, for better and for worse. Psychologists Jerome and Dorothy Singer (e.g., Singer, Singer, and Rapaczynski, 1984) have underscored such concerns, arguing that television has as much potential to influence the family as does the home environment, parental behavior, and the socioeconomic status of the family. Moreover, several influential research summaries have reached the conclusion that such concerns are valid, after examining considerable empirical evidence of media effects on families. For example, the National Institutes of Mental Health, in their summary of research about television's effects, concluded that the behaviors in "television families almost certainly influence viewers' thinking about real-life families" (Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, 1982, p. 70).

Such findings suggest that it is imperative that scientists continue to monitor the way families are portrayed on television. Moreover, researchers must continue to strive to understand better the effects of television's portrayals on the public health and psychological well-being of society's rapidly evolving families.

See also:Audience Researchers; Children's Attention to Television; Cultivation Theory and Media Effects; Parental Mediation of Media Effects; Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects; Television Broadcasting.


Atkin, David J. (2000). "Home Ecology and Children'sTelevision Viewing in the New Media Environment." In Television and the American Family, 2nd edition, eds. Jennings Bryant and J. Alison Bryant. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bandura, Albert. (1994). "Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication." In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, eds. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Comstock, George. (1991). Television and the American Child. Orlando, FL: Academic Press. Coontz, Stephanie. (1992). The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books.

Dates, Jannette L., and Stroman, Carolyn. (2000). "Portrayals of Families of Color on Television." In Television and the American Family, 2nd edition, eds. Jennings Bryant and J. Alison Bryant. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gerbner, George; Gross, Larry; Morgan, Michael; and Signorielli, Nancy. (1994). "Growing Up with Television: The Cultivation Perspective." In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, eds. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kotler, Jennifer A.; Wright, John C.; and Huston, Aletha C. (2000). "Television Use in Families with Children." In Television and the American Family, 2nd edition, eds. Jennings Bryant and J. Alison Bryant. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pearl, David; Bouthilet, L.; and Lazar, Joyce, eds.(1982). Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, Vol. 1 (DHHS Publication No. ADM 82-1196). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rideout, Victoria J.; Foehr, Ulla G.; Roberts, Donald F.; and Brodie, Mollyann. (1999). Kids & Media @ The New Millennium. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Robinson, James D., and Skill, Thomas. (2000). "Five Decades of Families on Television: From the 50s through the 90s." In Television and the American Family, 2nd edition, eds. Jennings Bryant and J. Alison Bryant. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Singer, Jerome L.; Singer, Dororthy G.; and Rapaczynski, Wanda S. (1984). "Family Patterns and Television Viewing as Predictors of Children's Beliefs and Aggression." Journal of Communication, 34(2), 73-79.

Smith, Tom W. (1999). "The Emerging 21st Century American Family." GSS Social Change Report No. 42. National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

Jennings Bryant

J. Alison Bryant