The introduction of television after World War II coincided with a steep rise in mortgage rates, birth rates, and the growth of mass-produced suburbs. In this social climate, it is no wonder that television was conceived as, first and foremost as a family medium. Over the course of the 1950s, as debates raged in Congress over issues such as juvenile delinquency and the mass media's contribution to it, the three major television networks developed prime-time fare that would appeal to a general family audience. Many of these policy debates and network strategies are echoed in the more recent public controversies concerning television and family values, especially the famous Murphy Brown incident in which Vice President Dan Quayle used the name of this fictional unwed mother as an example of what is wrong with America. As the case of Quayle demonstrates, the public often assumes that television fictional representations of the family have a strong impact on actual families in America. For this reason people have often also assumed that these fictional households ought to mirror not simply family life in general, but their own personal values regarding it. Throughout television history, then, the representation of the family has been a concern in Congress, among special interest groups and lobbyists, the general audience and, of course, the industry which has attempted to satisfy all of these parties in different ways and with different emphasis.

In the early 1950s, domestic life was represented with some degree of diversity. There were families who lived in suburbs, cities, and rural areas. There were nuclear families (such as that in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) and childless couples (such as the Stevens of I Married Joan or Sapphire and Kingfish of Amos 'n' Andy). There was a variety of ethnic families in domestic comedies end family dramas (including the Norwegian family of Mama and the Jewish family of The Goldbergs). In addition anthology dramas such as Marty sometimes presented ethnic working-class families. At a time when many Americans were moving from cities to mass-produced suburbs these programs featured nostalgic versions of family and neighborhood bonding that played on sentimentality for the more "authentic" social relationships of the urban past. Ethnicity was typically popular so long as it was a portrayal of first generation European immigrants; Black, Hispanic and Asian family life were almost never dealt with. When they were they were the butt of the joke such as the Cuban Ricky Ricardo with his Latin temper or the African American Beula with her job as the happy maid/mammy in a white household.

Meanwhile on 1950s documentaries and in fiction programming the family often served as the patriotic reason "why we fight" Communism---much as it served as a source of patriotism in the Norman Rockwell magazine covers of W.W.II. Action/adventure programs such as the syndicated series I Led Three Lives, contained numerous episodes in which Communists infiltrated families and threatened to pervert American youth. Paradoxically, however, the family also provided a reason why we fight the more extremist versions of anti-communism--especially that espoused by Senator Joe McCarthy in 1952 when Edward R. Murrow's See It Now presented "The Case of Milo Radulovich," about an Air Force pilot who was suspected for Communist sympathies. Murrow used interviews with Radulovich's sister and father to convince viewers that he was not a Communist but instead a true American with solid family values. From the outset then the family on television served both sentimental and political/ideological functions and these were often intertwined.

By the mid-1950s, as television production moved to Hollywood film studios and was also controlled by Hollywood independent production companies such as Desilu, the representation of family life became even more standardized in the domestic comedy. By 1960 all the ethnic domestic comedies and dramas disappeared and the suburban domestic comedy rose to prominence. Programs such as The Donna Reed Show, Leave It To Beaver, and Father Knows Best presented idealized versions of white middle-class families in suburban communities that mirrored the practices of ethnic and racial exclusion seen in America's suburbs more generally. Even while these programs captured the American imagination there was a penchant for social criticism registered in l950s science fiction/horror anthologies (such as The Twilight Zone's "Monsters on Maple Street" that explored the paranoid social relationships and exclusionary tactics in America's suburban towns.) Within the domestic comedy form itself, the nuclear family was increasingly displaced by a counter-programming trend that represented broken families and unconventional families. Coinciding with rising divorce rates of the 1960s numerous shows featured families led by a single father (including comedies such as My Three Sons and Family Affair and the Western Bonanza), while others featured single mothers (including comedies such as Julia and Here's Lucy and the western The Big Valley). In all these programs, censorship codes demanded that the single parent not be divorced; instead the missing parent was always explained through a death in the family. By 1967 the classic domestic comedies featuring nuclear families were all canceled, while these broken families, as well as a new trend of "fantastic families" in programs like Bewitched and The Addams Family accounted for the mainstay of the genre.

At the level of the news these fictional programs were met by the tragic break up of America's first family as the coverage of President John F. Kennedy's funeral haunted America's television screens. We might even speculate that the proliferation and popularity of broken families on television entertainment genres was in some sense a way our society responded to and aesthetically resolved the loss of our nation's father and the dream or nuclear family life that he and Jackie represented at the time. As the nation mourned, other program genres showed cause for more general sorrow. Despite the fact domestic comedy families were well-to-do the 1960s also included depictions or America's underclass in hard-hitting socially relevant dramas such as the short-lived East Side/West Side that explored issues of child abuse and welfare in New York slums. Television also presented documentaries such as Hunger in America and Harvest of Shame that depicted underprivileged children, while other documentaries such as Middletown or Salesmen chronicled the everyday lives or typical Americans, demonstrating the impossibility of living up to the American family ideal. This trend toward social criticism was capped off in 1973 when PBS aired An American Family which chronicled the everyday life of Mr. and Mrs. William Loud and their suburban family by placing cameras in their home and surveying their day-to-day affairs. As the cameras watched, the Louds filed for divorce and their son came out as a homosexual. The discrepancies between these documentary/socially relevant depictions of American families and the more idealized images in the domestic comedy genre were now all too clear.

More generally the 1970s was a time of significant change as the portrayal of family life became more diverse, although never completely representative of all American lifestyles. Network documentaries continued to show the underside of the American Dream, while other genres took on the burden of social criticism as they attempted to reach a new demographic of young urban professionals, working women, and a rising black middle-class. Programs such as Norman Lear's All In The Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons flourished. All In The Family presented a working-class milieu and drew its comedy out of political differences among generations and genders in the household; Maude was the first program to feature a divorced heroine who, in one two part episode also had the first prime-time abortion. Other programs presented African America families ranging from shows like The Jeffersons who had, as the opening credits announced, finally got "a piece of the pie" to programs set in ghettos such as Good Times. Interracial families such as Webster depicted white parents bringing up black babies (although the reverse was never the case). In the mid-1970s through the present these new family formations have included programs featuring single moms (who were now often divorced or never married) such as Kate and Allie, One Day at a Time, and the more recent Murphy Brown. Drawing on previous working-girl/mother sitcoms like Our Miss Brooks or Here's Lucy the MTM studio precipitated a shift from literal biological families to a new concept of the family workplace. Here, in programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show co-workers were also co-dependents so that relationships were often ambiguously collegial and familial. Despite these innovations the 1970s and early 1980s still featured sentimental versions of family life including daytime soap operas, family dramas such as Family and Eight is Enough, historical-family dramas such as The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and the popular comedy The Brady Bunch.

Over the course of the 1980s, the genre of prime-time soap opera served as television's answer to the Reagan era dream of consumer -prosperity. Programs such as Dallas and Dynasty presented a world of high fashion, high finance, and for many, high camp sensibilities. Despite their idealized upper-class settings these programs like daytime soaps or the 1960s Peyton Place, dealt with marital infidelity, incest, rape, alcoholism and a range of other issues that pictured the family as decidedly dysfunctional. Perhaps because these families were extremely wealthy, audiences could view their problems as a symptom of upper-crust decadence rather then a more general failure in American family life experienced by people of all social backgrounds. Wealth was also apparent in the enormously popular Cosby Show, which featured black professionals living an ideal family life. Unlike Dallas or Dynasty, however, which were widely appreciated for their escapist fantasies and/or "camp" exaggeration, Cosby was often taken to task for not being realistic enough.


In addition to prime-time soaps and family comedies, other programs of the 1980s and 1990s showcased dysfunctional families and/or families in crisis. Made-for-TV-Movies such as The Burning Bed detailed the horrors or spousal abuse. In addition, during this period the television talk show has taken over the role of family therapist as programs such as Geraldo, Oprah, and Jerry Springer feature real-life family feuds with guests who confess to incest, spousal abuse, matricide, co-dependencies and a range of other family perversions. Unlike the daytime soap operas, these programs lack the sentiment of family melodrama and thus appear more akin to their contemporary cousin, the TV tabloid. These syndicated "tabloid" shows such as Cops or America's Most Wanted offer a range of family horrors as law enforcement agencies and vigilantes apprehend the outlaws of the nation.

They not only demonstrate how to catch a thief and other criminals, they also engage in didactic editorializing which either explicitly or implicitly suggests that crimes such as robbery, prostitution, or drug dealing are caused by dysfunctional family lives rather than by political, sexual racial, and class inequities. Still, in other instances the family remains "wholesome," especially in the age of cable when the broadcast networks often try to win a family audience by presenting themselves as more clean cut than their cable competitors. (For example, in various seasons on different nights ABC and NBC have both fashioned lineups of family--oriented programs aimed at mothers and children.)

Over the course of the 1980s and through the present, innovation on old formats has also been a key strategy. Programs such as the popular sitcom Family Ties reversed the usual generational politics of comedy by making the parents more liberal than their conservative, money-obsessed son. In the latter 1980s the new FOX network largely ingratiated itself with the public by displaying a contempt for the "whitebread" standards of old network television. Programs such as Married . . . with Children parodied the middle-class suburban sitcom, while sitcoms such as Living Single and the prime-time soap, Melrose Place presented alternate youth-oriented lifestyles. ABC's Roseanne followed suit with its highly popular parody of family life that includes such unconventional sitcom topics as teenage sex, spousal abuse, and lesbian romance. By the mid-1990s ABC broadcast Roseanne's clone, American Girl, the first sitcom to feature the generational conflicts in a Korean family.

Parody and unconventional topicality were not the only solutions to innovation. If portrayals of contemporary happy families seemed somewhat disingenuous or at best cliché by the end of the 1980s television could still turn to nostalgia to create sentimental versions of family togetherness. For example, family dramas such as The Wonder Years and Brooklyn Bridge presented popular memories of baby boom America. Both nostalgia and parody are also the genius in the system of the cable network, Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom, the country's largest syndicator. Its prime-time line-up, which it calls "Nick at Nite," features Viacom-owned reruns of mostly family sitcoms from television's first three decades, and Nick advertises them through parodic slogans that make fun of the happy shiny people of old TV. Other cable networks have also premised themselves on the breakdown of nuclear family ideology and living arrangements by, for example, rethinking the conventional depictions of home life on broadcast genres. For instance, MTV's Generation X serialized programs under the general title, The Real World, chronicles the real life adventures of young people from different races and sexual orientations living together in a house provided by the network. Nevertheless, cable has also been extremely aware of ways to tap into the on-going national agenda for family values and has turned this into marketing values. Pat Robertson's Family Channel is an example of how the Christian right has used cable to rekindle the passion for a particular kind of family life, mostly associated with the middle-class family ideals of the l950s and early l960s. In this regard it is no surprise that the Family Channel includes reruns of Father Knows Best, but without the parodic campy wink of Nick at Nite's evening line-up.

Although television has consistently privileged the family as the "normal" and most fulfilling way to live one's life, its programs have often presented multiple and contradictory messages. At the same time that a sitcom featured June Cleaver wondering what suit to buy the Beaver, a documentary or news program showed the underside of family abuse or the severe poverty in which some families were forced to live. Because television draws on an enormous stable of representational traditions and creative personnel, and because the industry has attempted to appeal to large nationwide audiences the medium never presents one simple message. Instead it is in the relations among different programs and genres that we begin to get a view of the range of possibilities. Those possibilities have, of course, been limited by larger social ideologies such as the racism or homophobia which effects the quality and quantity of shows depicting non-white and non-heterosexual households. Despite these on-going exclusions however it is evident that the family on television is as full of mixed messages and ambivalent emotions as it is in real life.

-Lynn Spigel


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See also Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; Amos 'n' Andy; Bewitched; Bonanza; The Brady Bunch; The Cosby Show; Dallas; Dynasty; Family Ties; Father Knows Best; The Goldbergs; Good Times; I Love Lucy; The Jeffersons; Julia; Kate and Allie; Leave it to Beaver; Married...With Children; The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Maude; My Three Sons; Peyton Place; Roseanne; The Waltons; The Wonder Years