Have you had the impression lately that the singles lifestyle is in vogue in a whole range of television programs, from medical dramas to sitcoms? It may not be your hyperactive imagination, but a definable trend that is being pursued consciously by programmers and marketers in order to increase profits.
That was the message delivered recently at a conference on the family held in Rome. The message was presented to the XVII International Congress for the Family, organised by the International Federation for Family Development, by one of Italy’s leading experts on media trends, Professor Paolo Braga, who drew attention to the lifestyles and attitudes promoted by a whole range of popular television programs.
Professor Braga said that whether television programs sought to inform or entertain, they exercised an influence – either good or bad. This influence can be even greater than that of the school or family. Professor Braga has a better idea than most observers of this issue, having studied the "narrative, industrial, and ideological aspects" of American television of the past 30 years. Among the programs he has studied are ER, Friends, House, CSI and Desperate Housewives. All of them, he argues, promote a singles lifestyle while giving scant, if any, attention to the traditional family.
According to Professor Braga, programs about singles were created at a time when television was struggling to maintain the audiences that it had enjoyed previously. He said that when free-to-air television started to loose market share to pay TV, marketers needed to find ways to attract advertisers and their lucrative advertising budgets. The TV networks considered that the largest and most attractive market was that of singles with typically high disposable incomes, low commitments and with a culture open to change – one most likely to try new products. "The sitcoms were created to appeal to this market and to perpetuate or reinforce it," he said.
In fact, Professor Braga argued, the American sitcoms and other programs had a sinister aim – to perpetuate and reinforce the singles culture. In other words to ensure that singles remained single. The sitcoms appealed to the singles market by evoking emotions associated with heroism or motivation on the one hand and consolation on the other. The typical protagonists of the series were heroes in their work and professional lives – and were therefore positive role models in that respect. At the same time they were anti-heroes in their family lives – and therefore negative role models in the family dimension of their lives.
As heroes they moved the viewer towards imitation in the work and professional sphere – generally they were portrayed as people with high IQs and with a strong work ethic. As anti-heroes they were designed to comfort the viewer as they shared their own failures in typical life situations.
Another aspect of the typical characters in these television programs was that they were invariably "uprooted" in their family lives. They either had no family or had a terribly dysfunctional family. They certainly never had any extended family and normally had little or no private life. Typically, they felt guilty when they were with their spouse and even then were preoccupied with their work. In the workplace, they usually had what was in effect a substitute family. Their workplace colleagues "cared" and listened to their problems and grievances. Often these workplace affections spilled over into romance which often led to further disintegration in their family lives.
Having children or making definitive choices that provided opportunities for personal growth and maturity was often laughed about in these programs. The overall world view they promoted served to give consolation to single people. They were encouraged to feel that they were not alone in living with similar problems or dysfunction in their private life.
Professor Braga argued that the typical view of the family and of life as a single offered by the sitcoms and other programs was aimed at keeping people single in order to help maintain and expand the market that advertisers were most interested in reaching. "The Sitcoms are subtle in motive, and are made with great narrative talent which is very enticing to the public and expensive to produce," Professor Braga said. Their influence has spread well beyond the United States, partly because the US originals were often imitated in cheaper productions in other countries.
Professor Braga encouraged parents to watch the sitcoms with their children and to help them explore the themes that they contained. "Look for the positive and negative points and study and comment on the way the producer has planned the show," he said. "Share your experience with your children." Often this process would help young people to see the motives behind the programs and the way in which they were designed to manipulate viewers. When young people were able to see how manipulative the programs were, they would often lose any desire to watch them.
Louise Brosnan is an Australian business consultant. William West is a Sydney journalist.