‘Reacher,’ ‘Yellowstone’ are among shows dubbed ‘Dad TV.’ How ‘simpler storytelling’ is winning fans in the streaming era.
In an era where television often tangles us in complex narratives, there’s a growing bench reserved for the uncomplicated charm of what fans are referring to as “Dad TV.”
Dad TV is where shows like Yellowstone, Billions and Reacher live — not too heavy, not too light, just right for unwinding. More a style of television show than it is a genre, the moniker itself is vague and usually depends on one’s interpretation. It’s not just for dads, either, or men in general.
“Dad TV can mean all kinds of different things,” Robert Thompson, professor of TV, radio and film at Syracuse University, told Yahoo Entertainment. In large part, the shows involve digestible storylines, “non-pretentious plots” and relatable heroes, all of which have been characteristics of great programing since the beginning of television itself, he explained.
Such themes are evident in shows like Amazon Prime’s Bosch, about an LAPD detective navigating his own personal demons, Paramount+’s Tulsa King, starring Sylvester Stallone as a banished Mafia capo organizing a criminal empire in Oklahoma, or Max’s The Last of Us, with Pedro Pascal as a hardened survivor in a post-apocalyptic world tasked with smuggling a teenage girl across the U.S.
NPR describes Dad TV as a pop culture term that “may have been invented as an insult, but actually describes a potent and powerful” form of storytelling.
Reacher star Alan Ritchson appears to agree. In a recent interview with GQ UK, he rejected the show’s Dad TV label. The series, which is in its second season on Amazon’s Prime Video, follows a former military police officer-turned-vigilante who finds himself hunting wrongdoers. For his part, Ritchson insisted that the series is more “family TV” than anything else.
“I’ve shown my kids the show. I let them watch Season One,” he explained. “They loved it, man. For me, it’s not ‘Dad TV’, it’s ‘family TV’. I walk down the street and little ladies on their walkers are like [adopts the voice of a decrepit old woman] ‘Reacher … Reacher…’ It’s such a misnomer to me to qualify this as ‘Dad TV.’ But I am a father and I, too, love the show. Maybe it does work.”
What defines Dad TV?
Thompson said these types of shows tend to be “less complex” and usually have an “unambiguously great hero who tends to win, and who’s unflappable.”
There’s also a “nurturing quality” to Dad TV, he added, noting that it would be a mistake to categorize its audience as only middle-aged men, or to assume that every plot centers around traditionally “machismo” themes like crime, business or sports.
“It’s just simpler storytelling,” he explained. “It’s almost always a way to refer to a drama that wasn’t really hard to understand.”
Shows like Twin Peaks, The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad require viewers to have “a high degree of commitment” in order to keep up with their long-form narratives, Thompson said. That’s different from “easy-to-watch shows” of the 1960s and ’70s, from Outlaws and Starsky and Hutch, to Kojak and Baretta, all of which share similar attributes with shows considered to be Dad TV today, he explained.
“So much of good TV is really complicated,” Thompson said. “That’s why something like Reacher is so appealing. You don’t need to bring your liberal arts comparative literature degree to watch it.”
There’s a lucrative aspect to Dad TV as well, You Are What You Watch author Walt Hickey told Yahoo Entertainment. While networks have traditionally found success in targeting young consumers, streamers are particularly focused on targeting older audiences that can actually afford recurring subscriptions.
Compared to the advertiser-coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic, “older audiences tend to have more money sloshing around,” Hickey explained. “And so, particularly for streaming services, cable and premium cable, this has always been a very desirable demographic because they’re the people who can afford to pay for premium experiences.”
Paramount+ has the oldest skewing demographic of all streamers, per Parrot Analytics, with 63.1% of its audience being over 30.
Other streamers like Disney+ and Max have a 55.8% and 45.3% of male viewership in their originals, respectively, with 46.3% and 53.2% of overall viewers being over 30, according to the Parrot Analytics report.
“These streamers and networks are realizing they need to tap into this very desirable demographic that has an established income, that is likely to pay to subscribe to these services, and nevertheless, will consume content that is kind of designed for them,” Hickey explained. “It’s not a particularly novel approach, but it’s definitely one that works.”
Thompson foresees more Dad TV content in the near future, as audiences feel nostalgic for shows that play on these established themes. Ultimately, “it’s an attitude rather than a genre,” that characterizes these shows, he explained.
“Dad TV has characteristics that are still very appealing to people who simply want to sit down and be entertained,” he said. “It’s like Dad TV is part of the [programming] renaissance.”