By Kate Canada Obregon, Partner, Oishii Creative.
We gravitate towards stories about families because they capture the quirky, imperfect, and often hilarious dynamics of our own lives. As a content creator, television is uniquely positioned to mirror our changing families and to help audiences navigate what it all means. The Guardian Media Network recently pointed out that television, “deserves a lot of credit” for responding to cultural and social trends around kids and families.
If family television reflects our commonly held values and attitudes, it’s no wonder that we’ve seen enormous changes in that content over the past 60 years. Good television taps into the wellspring of storytelling, appealing to our deepest emotions. Only recently, however, has the story been so colorful, and crowded. Here’s a look at how the changes in American families and their continually complicated stories get played out in entertainment.
In the 1950s,broadcast television was an emerging business model. Broadcasters had to go big to captivate mainstream audiences and could ill afford to offend-especially the most venerable institution in the country. The family was viewed as one cohesive functional unit and the need for conformity was a recurring theme in programming. Demographically speaking, television reflected the fact that American households were primarily white, and on TV white families stood in for other ethnic groups. One early exception was the Emmy-winning series The Goldbergs, the first situation comedy on broadcast television featuring a Jewish family, which began airing on CBS in 1949.
After World War II, US consumers had more discretionary income and the population was growing. With more money and bigger families, people began moving to the then-new suburbs. Television telegraphed these demographic changes, turning raw data into stories and fueling audience imaginations and creating new desires with such shows as The Real McCoys, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched and Father Knows Best.
By the 1970s, the American family had begun a process of dramatic change.Divorce rates doubled, but as many adults gave up on marriage, they did not give up on the family. This time is the advent of what we now know as blended families. The face of the American public was becoming a true melting pot, a multicultural mixture of ethnicities, races and religions under a single American identity.
Again, television reflected these changes, now playing off family tension in such popular shows as the ground-breaking All In The Family and its spinoffs Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons. While these programs still held up the family, they injected real life issues and conflicts into the sitcom format. Arguing became a way for kids and adults to learn how to communicate while still remaining close as a family. At the same time, kids entertainment was changing as well. Researchers were finding that children who‘co-viewed’ television with an adult were significantly more engaged than those who watched it alone. If kids talked to adults about the Cookie Monster and his love for sweets, they took big steps in understanding the need for a balanced diet. These findings had a huge effect on television content, leading to a demand for quality programming that both kids and parents could experience together.
Recent demographic changes have further upended American society and culture. We are more diverse than ever and in a demographic first, immigrant families accounted for the majority of births in 2010. Census data also indicates that there is no longer a “typical” American family as they are headed by divorced, married, single parents, married couples and a rising number of same-sex married and unmarried couples. At the same time, more grandparents and extended families are living together in single households
Increasingly, measuring the family household means looking at self-reported data: how people view themselves. Households are now typically defined as groups of people living together regardless of their social and biological relationships. This new data reflects our changing attitudes about families and the ways parents and kids should live and love. It is opening up a new canvas on which we can write stories and create meaningful content that is truly modern and celebrates everyone in the household. I have no doubt that television will continue to play a critical role in shaping and depicting family stories and in doing so, attract more audiences. Despite the proliferation of ephemeral social networks and universal “connectedness,” families and intimate relationships still matter, maybe more than ever.
Kate Canada Obregon is a partner and VP of Oishii Creative, an award-winning brand and creative agency in Los Angeles. Before joining Oishii, she earned a PhD at the University of Southern California, where she also taught. For more than 15 years, Obregon has been at the intersection of media, media studies, critical media pedagogy and the social sciences. She has taught and designed multimedia courses for the Annenberg School of Communication and The School of Letters Arts and Sciences.
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