The image of fatherhood in modern television is the theme of a two-day conference currently under way at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (PUSC).
"The Figure of the Father in Serial Television" is the latest conference on the theme of "Poetics, Communications, and Culture" hosted bi-annually by PUSC's Institutional Church communications faculty.
The conference aims to offer a study of fatherhood as it is represented in popular television series: specifically, the father's role in the family; the absence of the father figure; and the relationship between a father and his children.
Today's session began with a presentation on the "golden age" of fictional television by Professor Alberto Nahum García from the University of Navarra. He was followed by RAI journalist Costanza Miriano, mother of four, who spoke on the role of the father within the family, while Dr. Alberto Fijo, director of the newspaper Fila Siete and head editor of Acerensa, provided an analysis of three British television series: "Downton Abbey," "Luther," and "The Hour."
Fr. John Wauck, professor of institutional communications at PUSC and one of the panel moderators, told ZENIT that the theme for this year's conference was chosen, in part, to "draw attention to the huge role that fatherhood plays in many contemporary television shows."
As a pontifical university, he said, "we're interested in, above all, theological and sometimes anthropological, philosophical, moral questions. In an academic environment, we frequently forget that it's not necessarily in textbooks or in classrooms where these questions are being addressed."
Some of the speakers in today's session, he continued, noted how "we're living through … a 'golden age' of television, in which there's the luxury of having an enormous amount of time to tell very long and complicated stories with technology that now is almost on a par with the technology that's used in feature films. The difference between television and film, therefore, has been reduced in terms of quality."
Unlike films, Fr. Wauck noted, which are generally limited in length to around two hours, television series are able to delve into complex questions about life and existence over the course of many hours: "Questions of identity, fatherhood, the relationship between fathers and children, the moral issues involved in the exercise of parental authority, the reaction of children to the presence of a father, or the absence of a father, or the various defects or deficiencies of fathers. All of those things are able to be treated in a more profound way in these long television series where you don't have to finish everything in a couple hours."
"The saga of a family is hard to do in two hours, but in these television series you can, and that's what you're seeing."
Television and the crisis of fatherhood
The aim of this year's Church communications conference is not to offer a solution to the problems within the family, but to identify the crisis from the point of view of television. "Frequently, the problem in many television series is the absence of a father, or a father who is somehow inadequate. Looking for perfect fathers is going to be very difficult in today's world of television. One of the papers that's being presented has to do with 'Pa' from 'Little House on the Prairie,' but even that's going back a long ways to find that kind of father figure."
"Most of the father figures that you find in contemporary television series are deeply flawed, if they're present at all," he said, noting how "sometimes the real story of fatherhood in a series is the absence of the father as it is in the society at large."
An outside perspective
Although the majority of the television shows being studied are from Britain and the United States, the speakers are almost exclusively comprised of Spanish and Italian experts. "There's a very international dimension to the conference," Fr. Wauck said, "not just from the fact that people come from different countries, but that there's this cultural distance on the part of the presenters from the programs they're talking about. They are therefore able to look at American television series with an eye that's a little different than what you ordinarily run into in American commentary."
He also noted how it was significant when one of the speakers, wife and mother Costanza Miriano of RAI television, said in her talk that she does not have time to watch television. "That is a very valuable point to take into account at a conference like this because it raises the question: If the people who are doing the parenting don't have the time to watch programs where parenthood is being talked about, who is watching? Apparently it's not the people who are raising the children today."