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Family Portrait of Ozzie and Harriet

Photograph

By: Anonymous

Date: April 19, 1956

Source: Bettmann/Corbis

About the Photographer: This photograph resides in the Bettmann Archives of Corbis Corporation, an image group headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.

INTRODUCTION

Television has always provided a window into the American consciousness, in some cases reflecting reality and in others portraying a vision of possible reality. Television series like M*A*S*H, which blatantly poked fun at U.S. military involvement in Asia, and the original Superman, who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way", both reflected the concerns of their day in a world uneasy at the saber-rattling of the Cold War. Shows like Lassie celebrated classic themes of growing up, while adventures like Star Trek stirred the imaginations of multiple generations, depicting a future still filled with adventure but no longer facing the mundane worries of today.

While television today is seen as simply a delivery medium, the pioneers of television foresaw it as far more than an entertainment device—they believed it was a revolutionary tool to bring education and enlightenment to the world. For this reason, the content of early television programs was closely regulated, both by the broadcast industry itself and by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversaw broadcasting and was empowered to fine broadcasters for vulgar or profane content.

Given these limitations, the television programs of the 1950s and 1960s appear laughably benign by modern standards. Characters rarely became angry, violated the law, or faced problems that couldn't be resolved by the end of the episode. Oddly, television characters also never seemed to use the restroom, and even married couples frequently slept in separate beds to avoid the implication that they might be having physical relations. Of the many famous television families, none blurred the line with real life more completely than the popular series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

From 1952 to 1966, America looked on as the Nelsons, a traditional nuclear family with two sons, dealt with the challenges of being a family. Foreshadowing the reality television shows of a half-century later, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson played themselves, living with their two sons in a television house modeled after their actual residence. Events in their sons' lives, including their marriages, were woven into episodes of the show, and when son Rick began a real-life singing career, his character on the show did likewise, further blurring the line between reality and fantasy. For more than a decade, the family lived out a sanitized version of real life in prime time, and millions of Americans enjoyed visiting the Nelson home each week.

PRIMARY SOURCE

Family Portrait of Ozzie and Harriet

See primary source image.

SIGNIFICANCE

With the success of the Nelsons, television quickly generated a slew of copycat programs depicting families. These families, including Ward and June Cleaver and Rob and Laura Petrie, closely followed the Nelson model, filling each episode with clean humor, minor crises, and satisfying conclusions. Even The Honeymooners, whose characters could be far more abrasive, seemed to live in a world with few real problems. While Americans undoubtedly knew these families were too perfect to be real, they quickly came to see the characters as friends.

As television matured, audiences became bored with the imaginary world in which everyone was polite and conflict never occurred; in response, 1970s television portrayed a diverse array of families, many of them confronting serious difficulties. The Waltons, which ran from 1972–1981, depicted a poor rural family living in Depression-era America. This impoverished family faced conflict on a weekly basis, including concerns about starvation, struggles with alcoholism, and the reality of illness and death. At times sappy, the series retained the charm of the 1960s television families while injecting a dose of real-world drama.

Archie Bunker, the central character in the sitcom All in the Family, demonstrated that television families could be just as unpleasant as real ones. Bigoted and boorish, Bunker called his wife "dingbat" and his son-in-law "meathead," ruling his house with sarcasm and political incorrectness. Ironically, despite his obnoxious behavior, Bunker was generally considered a good husband and provider. All in the Family opened the door for dysfunctional television families. The show ran from 1971–1979.

Television frequently succeeds by recycling previous concepts. In 2002, fifty years after Ozzie and Harriet premiered, MTV launched a new series entitled The Osbournes. Like its forebear, the new series focused on the day-to-day life of a musician named Ozzie, this time featuring former heavy-metal star Ozzy Osbourne. Like the older series, the new one included the musician's wife and two children in episodes revolving around the family's experiences. Unlike the original, however, the new series was not edited for content; it also portrayed problems including a child's drug addiction, alcoholism, a near-fatal car accident, and the news that Osbourne's wife had been diagnosed with cancer. The show ran for four seasons.

Aided by singing appearances on his family's show, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's son Rick went on to a successful musical career and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2006, Ozzy Osbourne's daughter Kelly, who was also pursuing a singing career, announced that her next reality show would take place in a brothel.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Brooks, Marla. The American Family on Television: A Chronology of 121 Shows, 1948–2004. New York: McFarland and Company, 2005.

Douglas, William. Television Families: Is Something Wrong in Suburbia? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Periodicals

Anonymous. "Family Fare Proponents Push a la Carte Cable." Christian Century. 123 (January 24, 2006): 11.

Atkinson, Claire. "At Last, the Whole Family Can Watch Sex on TV." Advertising Age. 76 (September 19, 2005):3-5.

Kipnis, Jill. "Family Shows Are Serious Business." Billboard. 117 (2005): 26.

Web sites

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Facts for Families. "Children and Watching TV." February 2005 〈http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/tv.htm〉 (accessed June 16, 2006).

American Academy of Pediatrics. "Television and the Family." 〈http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm〉 (accessed June 16, 2006).

Family Portrait of Ozzie and Harriet

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