Prime-Time TV Fare Rarely Shows Family Life as It's Really Lived

As a college professor and the mother of three young children, Katharine Heintz-Knowles knows firsthand how even the best-laid child-care plans can go awry.

She has spent an hour on the phone before work dialing desperately for a substitute baby sitter. She has taken a child to work when a sitter was on vacation. And she has missed a meeting because a child was ill.

"My life today is one big work-family conflict," Professor Heintz-Knowles says with a laugh.

Yet when she and her husband watch prime-time television, they rarely see fictional parents dealing with real-life challenges like theirs. In the fantasy world of sitcoms and made-for-TV dramas, children's needs seldom pose a problem. On the rare occasions when a TV parent must work late or a TV child doesn't feel well, friends and relatives come quickly to the rescue.

This spring, Heintz-Knowles confirmed the impressions she had formed as a viewer when she conducted the first-ever study of how prime-time TV portrays work and family issues. That study, "Balancing Acts: Work/Family Issues on Prime-Time TV," is being released today by the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington. It shows just how out of sync most TV plots and characters are with the realities of 1990s family life.

Heintz-Knowles, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington in Seattle, analyzed 150 episodes of 92 different programs, including six made-for-TV movies, from the six commercial broadcast networks, adding up to 119 hours of TV.

Men, she discovered, account for two-thirds of the 820 adult characters she analyzed. Characters are also disproportionately young and free of family responsibilities. Only one-third of TV mothers work, compared with two-thirds of real-life American mothers. Most shows center on either the home or the workplace, with little overlap. Almost no one is over 50. Elder care is nearly nonexistent.

Heintz-Knowles acknowledges that some TV shows do feature children in child care. But during the two weeks of her analysis, she says, "not a single child-care center was shown, not a single phone call was made to a child-care center, and there was no mention of a child at a child-care center in conversation.

"If you were dropped from outer space and you used prime-time commercial television to learn about this culture, it would appear that child-care centers are not being used by working parents."

She remains slightly baffled by this absence. "I know that people who write for TV are young," she says. "But I would think that many of them are young parents who would deal with these things on a day-to-day basis." She laments the loss of "Roseanne" and "Grace Under Fire," which revolved around working families. And she attributes the current shortage of family shows to the enormous popularity of programs like "Seinfeld" and "Friends," which star single people and have spawned a host of copycat shows.

Now that Phoebe on "Friends" is pregnant, Heintz-Knowles says, "it'll be interesting to see what they do with her baby. Infants are almost always used as props for some other kind of jokes for adults."

"Murphy Brown" serves as a good example. "The pregnancy and birth issues made for good TV, but it was her professional career that ran the show, not her personal life. The baby faded into the background. He became marginal."

One episode of "Homicide" illustrates how plots fail to recognize potential work-family conflicts. A police detective attends a custody hearing, apparently without needing to arrange for time off.

By contrast, the show "Malcolm and Eddie" offers a more positive example. When a single mother is snowed in on a business trip, she calls to ask her cousin to stay with her child overnight.

As the central storyteller in Americans' lives today, television plays a powerful role in reflecting and shaping culture, and in entertaining and informing the 100 million viewers who watch prime-time programs. By showing how families cope with their own work-and-family dramas, Heintz-Knowles points out, TV could reassure viewers that they are not alone. It could even offer hope for solutions.

"A lot of times there's a sense that people watch TV to escape their daily lives, not to rehash them," she says. "But I think a work-family conflict would be perceived as perfectly normal in a program that features working parents as characters. I think viewers would appreciate it."

There's one way to find out if she's right - by trying. Producers and scriptwriters, are you listening?

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