In Today's TV Families, Who Knows Best?

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In Today's TV Families, Who Knows Best?

Newspaper article

By: Elizabeth Stone

Date: May 13, 1990

Source: Stone, Elizabeth. "In Today's TV Families, Who's Right?" New York Times, May 13, 1990.

About the Author: Elizabeth Stone is a writer and educator in English and media studies, and the author of a number of books, including Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us.


Television programming has changed steadily over the decades, reflecting political, economic, and social shifts in the viewing population, as well as the desire of television executives to provide audiences with something new. Programs meant for a family audience, in particular, have morphed according to the alterations in American family structure.

In the 1950s, popular shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best reflected a traditional family structure, with two parents in traditional roles of paternal provider and maternal caregiver. By the 1960s and 1970s, television families began to reflect changes in the demographics, with programs such as The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch.

In the 1980s, many television shows, including Growing Pains and Full House, reversed the standard parent/child role, with television children outpacing their parents in intelligence and wit. Rather than influencing the way viewers look at the family structure, however, these programs are often a result of changes in real-life American families and are designed to appeal to their target audiences.


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Television sitcoms may resemble real life, but the situations and the characters remain fictional, and though life does occasionally emulate art, the reverse is far more typical. In the 1950s, families enjoyed the prosperity that followed World War II, and the idealized picture of parents and children enjoying a night in front of the television together was often a reality. Television shows reflected that audience, where women were mothers and housewives and men came home from a day at work to enjoy dinner with their families. Parents worked hard and children either listened to authority figures or got into harmless mischief in programs such as Leave It to Beaver and Dennis the Menace.

In the decades that followed, however, the American family began to change. Divorce became more common, increasing the number of single-parent households and combined families due to remarriage. Women started working outside the home on a more regular basis, sometimes as the sole support of their family. As a result, television programmers began to appeal to these less-than-traditional households, airing shows about single mothers like Shirley Partridge, raising children on her own, and parents like Mike and Carol Brady, who encouraged their children from previous marriages to consider each other siblings. These idealized outlooks were meant to entertain people who were already familiar with the difficulties inherent in their situations.

By the 1980s, fewer and fewer families were able to sit down and watch television together as a unit. Two-income homes were becoming the norm, and children were becoming steadily more independent. As a result, the viewing audience shifted. Many television programs that traditionally targeted families began to gear themselves to a younger viewing audience overall, as advertisers became aware of the spending power of teenagers. While the shows still appealed on some level to adults, they also began to depict teens as more independent and capable, in some cases allowing them to overshadow their television parents. Children frequently became the focus of the shows, with parents' storylines fading into the background. In programs such as Growing Pains, My Two Dads, and Family Ties, the children are smart, capable, and sometimes outwit the adults. However, in other instances, those same children still get into trouble and require their parents to rescue them. The balance allowed for a more well-rounded viewing audience and a broader range of advertising.

The discrepancies between characters in family shows with upper- and upper-middle class characters versus working class characters can be explained in a number of ways. In previous decades, middle-class and blue-collar families appeared on a disproportionately small number of television shows. As programmers worked to adjust this ratio, introducing shows that represented working-class and minority families, they also worked to balance the family dynamics within those programs, and to avoid including too many clichés. Programs such as The Jeffersons, Married with Children, and Roseanne each focused on a specific characteristic of the family on which they based their humor, rather than depicting a standard family dynamic or a reversal of the parent/child relationship. Because of this, parents often came across as still in control of their children, rather than the opposite.

Meanwhile, upper- and upper-middle-class families depicted on television could be objects of humor because they were successful and driven and needed a flaw to humanize them and make them interesting to the viewing audience. Television shows need to resolve conflict week after week, and so even in an idealized television family, there must be something wrong to drive the story forward and keep viewers turning on the television.



Hammamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Taylor, Ella. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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

Web sites

Museum of Broadcast Communications. "Family on Television 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

――――――. "Social Class and Television 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

University of Virginia. "We Are the MTV Generation" 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).