Fathers aren't TV dunces

Posted: Jun 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Father's Day comes and goes without the same warmth and celebration as Mother's Day. The phone companies do not strain nearly as much with the prerequisite calls. The florists? Forget it. As for gifts in general, it's not the hottest holiday for retailers. Eight out of 10 people wait until the week before Father's Day to buy Dad a gift, according to the Mass Retail Association. What's the most popular gift for Dad? The survey shows that 42 percent of shoppers buy their father ... a card.

 Let's allow that this condition exists because it's not easy to buy for fathers, and besides, fathers generally don't make a fuss about gifts. What is important is the recognition that fatherhood is a vital support for our culture. We readily agree with that simple proposition, correct?

 But if that's so, why is father absence such a major social problem? The National Fatherhood Initiative's "Father Facts" include this sad statistic: Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than children who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.

 The opposite is also the obvious. Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy, and avoid high-risk behaviors such as drug use, truancy and criminal activity compared to children with uninvolved fathers.

 The NFI has also taken a particular interest in the way fathers are being portrayed on entertainment television, which regularly present dads as laughingstocks and lamebrains. There is reason for concern, too. Hollywood has taken the typical image of Dad from Ozzie Nelson to Ozzy Osbourne. As NFI's Roland Warren puts it, "Too many TV shows today tag fathers with the '3-D' image -- dumb, dangerous and disaffected. Such images must be reversed to demonstrate to viewers that fathers are there for their children and/or need to be."

 Back in 2000, the NFI's eye-opening study of fathers on 31 prime-time TV shows showed dads were portrayed as as involved, but incompetent. They were eight times more likely to be portrayed negatively than mothers.

 The current news on the state of TV dads is mixed. The latest study of the 2004-05 TV season by the Parents Television Council finds that network TV is increasing the visibility of father figures in prime time. The study, encompassing 106 shows with 195 child characters on the seven national broadcast TV networks, found that 86.5 percent of all TV children have a father figure involved in their lives. That's up three percent from the last PTC study two years ago. On the other hand, only 50 percent of the TV children live in a traditional family with married biological parents, which is down three percent. The big increase is in the number of TV children with single dads, which has climbed 10 percent.

 Hollywood can defend that quantitative presentation by pointing to real-life national trends, which it mirrors. But while the numbers may be accurate, that doesn't make it good. We're told more black men are in prison than in college, but does than mean that's how Hollywood should present them? It is the nuclear family -- father, mother, child -- that is the ideal. Just as Hollywood has the power to influence society in so many negative ways, so too does it have the ability to promote positive social change. It could do so in this field by presenting the nuclear family as the role model for society.

 And it should do a much better job showing respect for fathers, too. Many TV dads teach convoluted lessons at the service of comedy. On ABC's "Complete Savages," the family celebrates Thanksgiving dinner and goes around the table saying what they're thankful for. While all the sons said "girls" except for the one that said "farts," the dad concluded: "You know what I'm thankful for? That I have five sons who would do something as stupid as steal a turkey so I could have a happy Thanksgiving."

 It was not always like this. Go back in TV history and remember how viewers were riveted by how Dick Van Dyke juggled his career and family life on his show, or how Lorne Greene ruled the roost on "Bonanza." These were fathers you could admire. One of the reasons those shows were such wonderful successes can be found in their portrayal of the father figure. It's as easy as that.