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Families: Hollywood vs. America, Again

On Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, when tens of millions were preparing to gather with their loved ones, the U.S. Census Bureau issued its annual "Household and Family Characteristics" report. The study's bottom line: the devastating anti-family downtrends of the past fifty years - especially within the last two decades - continue. In 1970, 87 percent of American families were headed by a married couple, but by 1995, that number had decreased to 78 percent, or roughly three in four households.

Ironic, isn't it, that in the world of Hollywood, which purports to be but a reflection of society, the presentation of the family is just the opposite? A statistical juxtaposition illustrates this discrepancy. The study found that 22 percent of American families are not headed by a husband and wife. On the major TV networks, only 19 percent of shows feature a positive portrayal of marriage.

There are sixty-seven prime time series presently running on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. To determine how they treat the institution of matrimony, they are categorized in four ways. If the primary couple or couples on a show are married and the institution is depicted favorably, the show is categorized as positive. If the series features a married couple or couples, but derides the institution of marriage, it is listed as mixed. If the show deals primarily with the unmarried, be they sexually active singles, couples cohabitating, or individuals with broken marriages, it is classified as negative. Finally, if there is an absence of couples as primary characters, a program falls into the "not applicable" category. Here's a network-by-network rundown.

ABC: The best of the bunch, with five positive, three negative, six mixed, and four "not applicable." Among the positives, the superb "Home Improvement" is a role model for the way a family-centered sitcom should be presented. On the other hand, the increasingly bizarre "Roseanne" is a trendsetter for the dysfunctional-family theme that has become so prevalent on television. It falls into the "mixed" category because Roseanne and Dan are married and do raise a family - but in Roseanne fashion, which is to say: by tearing down every traditional family value in sight. (Ironically, the latest "Roseanne" outrage took place the same day the Census Bureau study was released. On that night's episode, Roseanne's mother announced her lesbianism at the family's Thanksgiving dinner.)

Among the negatives are the libidinous "Spin City" and "The Drew Carey Show," but the worst offender in this category is "Ellen." The producers, and presumably Ellen DeGeneres, continue to revel in the avalanche of publicity this show is receiving because both the star and her character, Ellen Morgan, are set to declare publicly their lesbian proclivities. And, for good measure, and in keeping with Hollywood's priorities these days, Ellen Morgan's parents became regular characters - only after they decided to divorce.

CBS: Five positive, five negative, four mixed, three N/A. Positive portrayals can be found on "Dave's World" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." The new "Promised Land" is a spinoff of the extraordinary "Touched By an Angel" and centers on a close-knit family. And then there's the new "Cosby," which has become synonymous with positive family values.

Negatives include the raunchy "Cybill," on which the divorced title character and her divorced best friend consistently belittle marriage, and "Nash Bridges," whose main character has had two busted marriages. "Murphy Brown" technically is mixed because two main characters are married, but as Dan Quayle pointed out, the series dismisses the very nucleus of family, mother and father.

Fox: Two positive, five negative, three mixed, two N/A. Only Fox could come up with this gem: its only positive depictions of marriage can be found on a cartoon ("The Simpsons") and the most violent program on broadcast television ("Millennium"). Negatives are led by "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210," wherein permissiveness is the rule, not the exception.

NBC: One positive, thirteen negative, five mixed, one N/A. Think about it: out of twenty series, only one ("Mad About You") deals positively with matrimony. "Something So Right" is mixed; it features a married couple, but one with a total of three previous marriages. Among the negatives: "Seinfeld," whose characters are phobic about marital commitment, and "Caroline in the City," "NewsRadio," and "Friends," all of which feature sexually active young singles for whom marriage is, at best, something to consider in the future.

Totals: Thirteen (19 percent) positive, twenty-six (39 percent) negative, eighteen (27 percent) mixed, ten (15 percent) not applicable. Twice as many programs have negative portrayals as have positive ones. Less than two out of ten promote a positive picture of marriage. Just another indication that Hollywood doesn't reflect reality, as its defenders so often maintain. Hollywood reflects Hollywood.