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The Great Divide: A Dose of Reality We Can Do Without

Tell Lifetime TV Not To Insult Us with Deadbeat Dads The Reality Show

By Tina Traster

October 1, 2009 -- What could possibly be more satisfying than watching Survivor contestants eat rats or cheering on Simon while he decimates the fragile ego of a pop star hopeful?

Ah, yes, watching a bounty hunter shake down a deadbeat dad. That's what Fox had hoped would make for great reality television because who among us wouldn't thrill at the idea of humiliating not only a man who is behind on child support but inadvertently shaming his children, who would get to watch him collared on national television?

Fox put its tail between its sensationalist legs after Fathers & Families, a national fathers' rights group, led a campaign against the show, originally called Bad Dads. Waiting in the wings was Lifetime TV (sometimes called the 'men suck' network) which picked up the pilot and renamed it Deadbeat Dads. The ambush reality TV show follows private collection agent Jim Durham as he tracks down and confronts dads who are behind on child support - a sort of Dog the Bounty Hunter for men in arrears.

After Fox handed off the show to Lifetime, Fathers & Families led a second protest. Lifetime received more than 5,000 calls, letters and faxes opposing "Deadbeat Dads". Fathers & Families in a September blog posting declared victory, at least for now, because the pilot did not air in the fall lineup.

Fathers & Families -- and anyone who is outraged by this planned reality show -- should celebrate cautiously. "The pilot is still under consideration," said Lindsay Drewel, a Lifetime spokesperson.

It wouldn't surprise me if Lifetime went forward with this because television executives know how to tap into divorce-related zeitgeist in the crudest and most cartoonish way. Deadbeat dad. Two words to describe something that seems so simple: A man who doesn't (or can't) pay child support doesn't love his children. A villain.

Google "deadbeat dad" and you can scroll through 9,720,000 results if you've got the time. The prolific use of this phrase by journalists, screenwriters, divorce attorneys, law enforcement and angry women is polarizing a nation that is already suffering under the perverted hand of the family court system. Women who repeatedly tell their children they have a "deadbeat dad" shouldn't be surprised when these children are later incapable of marriage or reluctant to have children.

It's too bad we've found a handy little phrase like "deadbeat dad" because it reduces the burden of acknowledging a complexity that often begins when a biased judge renders a ruling that will cripple a man financially. We all know men -- and women -- who have been given unfair support obligations that set them up to fail. In prosperous times, a dad with an undo burden may strip himself of every comfort and dignity just to keep up with payments. He may try to go back to the court to reduce his obligations but he knows the deck is stacked against him. This man, a decent man who loves his children, may slowly realize he's bleeding to death but he feels too paralyzed to do anything about it because he doesn't want to go to jail.

This man who has breathlessly kept up with child support, which is only the tip of the financial iceberg if he has joint custody, will become a deadbeat dad when his company downsizes and he is collecting unemployment. He could be the guy Jim Durham hunts down when unemployment runs out.

This Great Recession forced the health care debate to bubble up and become a national conversation. President Obama wisely tied our health care crisis to our economic woes. I wish the president and our legislators would take a look at the broken family law court system. Judges slap fathers (or the higher earner) with inflexible obligations. Divorce attorneys get rich because the system sets up people to falter and leaves little room for adjustment. Co-parenting is near impossible and toxic when divorced couples wrangle over money. A man who is laid off or gets ill is not able to provide. Mothers poison the children when the payments stop. These children learn to use the phrase "deadbeat dad."

Call or write Lifetime. Tell them not to air Deadbeat Dads. Tell their producers to create a pilot called Upbeat Dads, a reality show about dads who do their best to survive divorce.

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