What’s TV Teaching us About Dads?

– by Tom Piotrowski
©1999, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

At the end of the day, I love climbing the stairs to the room of my six- and eight-year-old sons to “tuck them in.” It’s a chance to sort out the day passed, ask a question and anticipate another sunrise full of new adventures. Growing up in the ‘70s, how distinctly I remember the end of almost every episode of my Mom’s favorite show. “Goodnight Johnboy!” We thought it pretty corny when television’s Walton family passed nightly bedtime goodnights throughout the house. But the message was that a family was retiring together from the battles of the day.

Sadly, too many children in today’s society are denied that beneficial end of the day. This is true particularly in the area of fatherhood. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that nearly 40 percent of America’s children will go to sleep tonight in a home where their biological father does not live. That translates into close to 25 million young people.

As we approach the 21st century, vast social and economic changes continue to threaten the culture of fatherhood. In our present media age, some wonder what impact TV has on fatherhood today. The National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) provides some interesting studies on television’s impact in the debate with their recent “Fatherhood and TV” survey. With the assertion that if close to 40 percent of America’s children are growing up fatherless, the most accessible portrayal of a father may be on their television set. Consequently, these children’s understanding of what a father is and does may be provided by a prime-time pop. It certainly makes sense to investigate the one-eyed beast’s impact and responsibility.

We know children consume great amounts of television. Estimates for youths are as high as 26 hours a week, while the national weekly average for household viewing hovers around the 50-hour-a-week mark. We also recognize that television has the potential to be a potent educator. Television author and critic Ted Baehr writes, “Television presents, repeats and rewards behavior and or information much more often than parents or educators do, not only because it occupies more of a child’s time, but also because it is constructed to deliver more information per second. It often presents, repeats and rewards behavior and or information more effectively than do parents or teachers because it is entertaining, exciting and captivating.”

The NFI study sought to evaluate prime-time fathers in the following categories:

Involvement: How involved was the father in the daily life of the family?

Engagement: How much direct one-on-one time did the father spend with his child?

Guidance: Is the father a role model for his children and concerned with their moral and developmental growth?

Competence: Is the father capable and competent?

Priority: Does the father place his role as father at the top of his priority list?

So how does television, arguably the most powerful social institution today, rate as foster family? According to the study, not very well. Of the 102 family shows surveyed in the study, only 15, or 14.7 percent feature a father as a recurring and central character. NFI reports that for the survey period the NBC network featured only one father on its entire prime-time schedule! Curious as well, the study found no fathers on any network show during prime-time on Saturday night—a time typically reserved for “family viewing.” During the study period, the results also showed that the prime-time family “substantially over-represents single, custodial fathers and completely ignores the reality of non-custodial fathers; a nearly 40 percent chunk of today’s number of real-life fathers.”

Overall, the study unveils a mostly unflattering version of the father. In the 15 shows featuring a recurring father figure as a central character, only four received a “positive” portrayal rating (one per network), and the same number received a “negative” rating. The remaining seven shows demonstrated fathers with some positive portrayals but those fathers were deficient in one or more aspect of fatherhood. For all shows rated, only 40 percent portrayed competent fathers. Instead, viewers would be 15 times more likely to be watching a show where sex between unmarried adults is the theme. The study dubbed the WB network the “most pro-fatherhood network” as that network received the highest scores for portrayals of fathers in three shows. Interesting also is the fact that the WB has been scoring high in overall teen viewing.

The report accurately concludes TV alone cannot be held accountable for the state of fatherhood in America today. But negative stereotyping and absent fathers in irresponsible amounts on television do not help the situation; rather, they amount to cultural sabotage. It perpetuates what Nicholas Davidson calls “the greatest social catastrophe facing our country.”

We know it would be ridiculous to expect the networks to create “perfect” TV dads. There’s no such thing; not even on those neat old ‘50s sitcoms. Television needs to help rebuild the structure of the family and the image of the father by using its power to tout the importance of the institution of family in our society. Fathers’ roles need to be reinforced and we need to see that our responsibility has not changed, even in the face of other changes society may thrust upon us. We need to be keen to the knowledge that every interaction we have with our children provides opportunity to raise, through our example, a model for father and family as God intended.

Today, our children do not see many constants in the world around them. While this is not always a bad thing, fathers need to let them know we are a steady and secure rock they can anchor to when the tricky currents of “growing up” threaten to wash them away or even sink them under.

The traditional descriptors of men and their roles in society have indeed changed. Our culture sometimes even seems bent on making fathers obsolete. As the human race plods down the road, it’s certain we will endure even more change. God’s plan for us as good fathers to our children remains constant. We need to pray for the healing of our countries’ fatherhood crisis. You can do that tonight when you “tuck” yours in.

A full report on the “Fatherhood and TV” study is available on The National Fatherhood Initiative Web site. (www.fatherhood.org)


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.