Lancaster New Era

On TV, fathers are a flop

Survey finds majority incompetent, uninvolved

Tuesday, March 2, 1999

By Ernest Schreiber
New Era Staff Writer

Lancaster New Era

Fathers seldom appear as major characters in television shows.

But when they do, they usually are incompetent, uninvolved in their family or both, a ground-breaking survey of network television programming has found.

The National Fatherhood Initiative, a nonpartisan, non-sectarian civic group, unveiled its findings about the portrayal of fathers on television at the National Press Club in Washington today.

Among its findings:

Of 102 network prime-time shows, only 15 include a father as a regular, central character.

Of those 15 shows, only four show fathers who are both competent and involved with their families.

"Unfortunately, when prime time television portrays a dad at all, it is usually either as a competent man yet uninvolved father, or as an involved father yet incompetent man," the authors of "Fatherhood and TV" said.

"In fact, if you were to pick a television show at random," they added, "it is at least 15 times more likely that you will be watching a show where sex between unmarried adults is the recurrent and central theme than a show where responsible fatherhood is the recurrent and central theme."

Still, the group did find several exceptional shows, ones that showed fathers making time for their children, providing sound guidance directly and by example.

It gave its highest marks to "7th Heaven," the story of a minister's family on the WB network, and to "Promised Land, a series about a family visited by angels that travels America helping those in need.

Those exemplary shows, however were outnumbered significantly by shows like "The Simpsons," with its bumbling father, and "That 70's Show," with an uninvolved father, the study found.

The National Fatherhood Initiative, founded in 1994 by Lancastrian Don Eberly, conducts public awareness campaigns to promote responsible fatherhood.

It undertook the TV study to determine what image of fathers children were seeing on network shows.

"For millions of American boys, the only models of fatherhood available to them are on television," the study noted. "And for millions of American girls, the only models for future husbands and fathers that are available to them are those portrayed on television."

An estimated 25 million children, 40 percent of the American population, now live in families where the father is absent. The group watched all prime time shows in which fathers were recurring characters with children under age 18 for a five-week period in November-December 1998.

It used a five-point scale to judge a father's involvement, time commitment, guidance, competence and family priority.

The WB network earned the highest marks for programming two shows with fathers as positive role models _ "Smart Guy" as well as "7th Heaven."

The Fox network, with no exemplary shows on fatherhood, received the lowest marks.

NBC has programmed only one show, "Mad About You," that portrayed a father as a central character, the study noted.

U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Chester County) and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), co-chairmen of the Congressional Task Force on Fatherhood Promotion, took part in the press conference announcing the study results.

Pitts commended the fatherhood initiative for providing an analysis that shows the need for more positive fatherhood role models.

"When four out of 10 children are going to bed in a home without a father, it's a tragic crisis occurring on our watch," the lawmaker said.

He said the task force will send copies of the reports to all members of Congress as part as of an effort to raise awareness of the problem.

The study authors said they did not intend to suggest that television networks should bear responsibility alone for promoting responsible fatherhood.

But television, as every social institution, should do its part toward that goal, they said.