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Do families seen on the small screen reflect the families of today?

Published: Saturday, Jan. 4 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Bill Cosby, as Dr. Cliff Huxtable of "The Cosby Show," listens to a point made by his grandson Gary Gray, as his granddaughter played by Jessica Vaughn looks on during taping of the final episode before a live studio audience in New York City, Friday, March 6, 1992. "The Cosby Show" was a return to idyllic family lives shown in a previous era's television culture.

Associated Press

Madeline Boughton used to watch TV shows about families with her own family. Together, she and her family pointed out moments that reminded them of their own family. And they related to the values the show presented, like loving and caring for your family.

But that’s where the connections stop.

The way a viewer like Boughton sees it, family-centric television shows like “Modern Family” and “Full House” are modeling themselves after families as a means of trying to connect with viewers. But the families seen on TV aren’t necessarily a true representation of families in the United States.

Since television’s injection into American culture with shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy,” television has offered examples of what the modern American family is supposed to look like. And shows about families have been popular, too. For example, “Modern Family" had more than 12 million viewers per episode during the past two seasons. The season premiere that aired on Sept. 21, 2011, was the highest-rated ABC premiere in six years.

Although directors and producers may try to model their shows after what they believe is the modern-day family, most times exaggeration and an unwillingness to stay realistic make TV families a shell of normality.

Sixty years of families

Families on television started out showing a “utopian idea” of the family, said Bob Thompson, a media studies professor at Syracuse University. Shows like “Leave it to Beaver” (1957 to 1963), “Father Knows Best” (1954 to 1960) and “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 to 1966) often depicted perfect families that fed into the idea of the American dream as they showcased nuclear families with white picket fences and maybe a pet or two, Thompson said. Though it wasn’t popular during its years of broadcasting, “Leave it to Beaver” is still remembered as a portrait of the idyllic family life.

“It was an image of the perfect American life,” Thompson said. “It was a very specific ideal. Families were more perfect on TV than they were in real life."

By the 1970s, TV families strayed away from an idyllic life. Shows like “One Day at a Time” (1975 to 1984) and “Alice” (1976 to 1985) presented single-parent families that didn’t represent the cultural norm at the time. But it was a way to reach another part of the audience, Thompson said.

It was “All in the Family” (1971 to 1979), though, that changed culture “in one fell swoop,” Thompson said. Unlike shows before its debut, “All in the Family” featured a dysfunctional family that cursed, screamed and argued with each other. “It was one big, loud, all-screaming-at-each-other family,” Thompson said.

The believed social norms that had been seen in TV shows of the previous generations were flipped on their head.

There was a revival of sorts during the early 1980s, as shows like “The Cosby Show” (1984 to 1992), “Growing Pains” (1985 to 1992) and “Family Ties” (1982 to 1989) brought back idyllic family lives: nuclear family, suburban home and positive attitudes. The late 1980s got edgier with shows like “Married … with Children” (1987 to 1997) and “Roseanne” (1988 to 1997), where families were unconventional, dysfunctional and where the shows' themes went in a darker direction, Thompson said.

Thompson said some shows, like “The Simpsons” (1989 to present), were created to be “not ‘The Cosby Show’ ” and to show other elements of family life. The family in "The Simpsons" is meant to represent a typical, blue collar family living in America, making it another example of a modern-day imitation of families.

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