The “Good Morning America” team sat on the “family couch” last week, exulting about weatherman Sam Champion’s engagement to his boyfriend. It was a moment of happiness for a team that’s been through an ordeal, as Robin Roberts seeks treatment for bone-marrow disease.
In this age of social disconnection, “GMA” has recognized — or perhaps merely stumbled into — a hunger for surrogate TV families, with all the faux intimacy that entails. And the ABC morning show has ridden the formula to ratings success, which means we can only anticipate more self-revelation and soul-baring moments ahead.
This idea of TV providing viewers a warm, cozy environment is hardly new. For years, local news teams have filled this role, along with wacky “morning zoo” radio and TV shows.
Yet the emphasis on family and fostering a sense of personal connection has migrated to larger and more prominent stages, in ways overtly designed to instill an emotional bond.
“Today,” long the reigning champ of morning television, has never exactly been hard-hitting, and has also gone out of its way to create a “Your TV family” environment. That said, the departure of key personnel through the years — first Katie Couric, then Meredith Vieira — offered periodic reminders of the relationship’s fleeting and mercenary nature.
In that regard, Couric’s move to syndication, “Katie,” clearly delineated the family emphasis. During her first, show viewers were not only reminded of the host losing her husband, but introduced to her daughters and mom.
ABC has bristled at suggestions that “GMA’s” approach can be melodramatic, but at times the program makes “Today” look like PBS’ “Frontline.”
As the AP’s David Bauder noted, “GMA’s” coverage of Roberts’ illness (encouraging fans online to “follow Robin’s journey”) has raised flags regarding “how much is too much, and whether legitimate concern can spill over into exploitation.”
What ABC has done, however, is happening in various forms and degrees all over the dial. Witness this summer’s Olympics, where viewers spent almost as much time suffering with family members watching key events — camera-people knew exactly where to find them — as the athletes themselves. After 2008 and 2012, millions probably feel they know gold-medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps’ nervous mom almost as well as their own.
Similarly, programs like “The X Factor” have made families — and not just the performers — part of the audition process, in a bid to amp up the drama.
News purists have argued (or perhaps more accurately, fantasized) that actually presenting hard news would connect with a discriminating audience. That’s certainly the basis for “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s lament on the erosion in modern news standards.
Yet the truth is, the most prominent recent example of a news shift that has managed to move the needle ratings-wise has been “GMA,” which despite the network’s protestations, exemplifies what ABC News president Ben Sherwood said in January: that he rejects “hard” and “soft” news labels, citing “The relevance of the news in real people’s lives,” as his main objective.
For that strategy to work, though, it needs to serve a need, or fill a void. And while the impact of social media on society remains a relatively nascent field of study, there is research pointing toward a growing level of alienation as many become immersed in a digital world. In a persuasive Atlantic article published in May, writer Stephen Marche discussed increasing loneliness linked in part to the rise of Facebook.
“In a world consumed by ever-more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society,” he wrote. “We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”
In that context, it’s hardly far-fetched to hypothesize about people deriving greater comfort from exposure to such TV “families” — even if they’re not real, and certainly not ours.
So is television essentially replicating what it did with children’s shows of yesteryear — namely, providing an audience with imaginary playmates and friends?
Consider it another wrinkle in what constitutes a family — where it’s not about who you love, but more pragmatically, to whom you’ll give your precious time.