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Living with an Invisible Family Medium

The longer we live with television, the more invisible it becomes. As the number of people who have never lived without television continues to grow, the medium is increasingly taken for granted as an appliance, a piece of furniture, a storyteller, a member of the family.
Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli, 17

Television has been conceptualized in exceedingly diverse ways. Federal Communications Commission chairmen have offered some of the most memorable metaphors. For example, in 1961, Newton Minow labeled television as “the vast wasteland,” (Barnouw 300), and, in 1983, Mark Fowler called television nothing more than a “toaster with pictures” (Mayer K-6). Since both FCC chairmen were addressing assemblages of the National Association of Broadcasters, you can imagine how well these epithets were received. Both images are useful, however, in that they point to the vacuous and ordinary properties often used to characterize this powerful and ubiquitous medium of communication.

Two other conceptualizations help round out the image of television we hope to portray. In 1971, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin played on a popular image of television as a “cool fire” when he noted that “myriad . . . audiences gather nightly around their sets, much as cave-dwelling ancestors gathered around the fire, for warmth and safety and a feeling of togetherness” (36). Even more relevant for our purposes is a family systems analysis in which “the family system can be seen to include the family unit and the television. Family members interact with each other and with the television, both individually and as a family unit” (Goodman 408).

This leads to the premise of this article, that families and television have become practically inseparable in American society. Moreover, their relationship is symbiotic. Television depends on families for viewership and for financial support through succumbing to advertising pressures. Families depend heavily on television for information and entertainment, for subject matter for conversation and casual interaction, and for many other social and psychological functions.

Family Usage of Television

A veritable catechism of statistics has emerged to describe the ubiquity of television in everyday life in America. We presume that most readers now know that television is in 98% of US households; that one or more sets is on for approximately seven hours per day per household; that television viewing occupies more of the typical American’s time than any activity other than sleeping and working, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Fewer people are aware of how dramatically the context of family television use is changing. When televisions first entered American homes in the 1950s and 60s, they occupied a prime spot in the gathering place of the home–the den or living room. Only a few options for programming were available, and the norm was for the family to gather and watch collectively. As American homes increased in size and television sets decreased in price, the ratio of televisions to homes increased (Andreasen 8). A national survey conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation (Rideout, Foehr, Roberts, and Brodie) revealed that, whereas in 1970 35% of homes had more than one TV set, by century’s end 88% of homes had more than one set. In fact, 66% of households surveyed had three TV sets, 20% of homes had four sets, and 12% had five or more sets.

In addition to the increase in the number of sets within the home, the number of channels to choose from has also increased dramatically. Whereas the television set of the 50s and 60s offered 3 to 4 channels of relatively homogeneous programming, today’s television has the potential, with the right cable or satellite plan, to offer hundreds of channels, most of which are targeted to particular members of the family. Not only can different family members retire to different rooms of the house to watch television, they can also watch incredibly different programs. The use of the television as a community-building device within the family, therefore, is no longer the norm.

One of the biggest revolutions in family television usage has been the shift in the locus of children’s television viewing from the family room to the bedroom or the children’s playroom. As Rideout, Foehr, Roberts, and Brodie noted,

Children’s bedrooms are rapidly becoming ‘media central’—More than half of all children have a radio (70%), tape player (64%), TV (53%), or CD player (51%) in their bedroom; a third (33%) have a video game player in their bedroom, and almost a third (29%) have a VCR there. More than one in sever (16%) has a computer in their bedroom (11).

In addition, in marked contrast from economic “common sense,” children from lower-income families are more likely to have a television in their bedroom than children from higher-income families.

These statistics reflect the fact that other media have joined television in a convergence into entertainment central, not only in our family rooms, but also in our children’s rooms. With this convergence, and with the introduction of digital television, WebTV, Internet-streamed programming, and a plethora of other technological gadgets, the definition of “television” seems to be constantly undergoing revamping.

A New Edition of a Book that Examines the Interface of Television and Family

We recently invited several of this country’s preeminent scholars to join us in preparing a second edition of Television and the American Family (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), which we edited. We are pleased to be able to share with you through the pages of this journal some of the reflections and findings of the scholars who contributed to this volume.

Remote Control and VCR Use

Although perhaps less newsworthy than the influx of high-techmedia into American homes, probably the most marked technological changes in how the American family relates to television came from the integration of the VCR and the remote control into the family television landscape. Both devices made television viewing easier and, when utilized in combination, shifted the amount of energy that the family had to use to exert considerable additional control over their viewing. These simple tools permitted what seems to be an oxymoron—a simultaneously more active and lazier audience (Walker and Bellamy 76).

Remote control devices (RCDs) are an integral part of the family television viewing experience. These devices, which can be found in nearly every household, empower the viewer and frustrate the advertiser, complicating the symbiotic relationship between the television industry’s desire for revenue and the American families’ desire for entertainment and information. They also maintain the dual function of enhancing both parental control and childhood exploration, depending on who holds the remote (Walker and Bellamy 77). So who is winning in the family pastime of Couch Commando? A review of the literature on RCDs by Walker and Bellamy found that according to research in traditional nuclear families the male head of the household controls the remote almost exclusively. Walker and Bellamy also highlighted interesting findings for those few families where the RCD is not male-dominated. In looking at RCDs and family communication patterns, Copeland and associates found that in families where women controlled the remote control, there was a tendency to be more socio-oriented, to avoid conflict through mediation, and to use emotional and direct communication styles. In addition, the phenomenon of channel surfing is more likely to occur when members of the family are viewing alone because the desire for control over what one watches could discourage group viewing. However, Walker and Bellamy do not necessarily believe that the need for control over technology will supercede the desire for companionship).

In addition to the remote control, the VCR has also had a strong impact of the way American families use television. In 1980, 1.1% of American households had a VCR; by 1997, that number had skyrocketed to 89%; and the projected penetration by 2000 was 93%, almost as high as the penetration of television sets (A.C. Nielsen Company 1). This basic household appliance serves three functions for the American family – to entertain, to displace other leisure activities, and to provide social utility (Lin). The VCR empowers the viewer to become an active participant in their viewing environment, to “take control” (Lin 93).

One of the most often cited “control” functions used by family members is “time-shifting,” or recording programming for later viewing. Another less often-cited function, but one of utmost importance when discussing the relationship of the family to television, is the social utility function (Lin). Although three-quarters of American households have two or more television sets, most have only one VCR. Therefore, using the VCR to share a viewing experience is reminiscent of the family viewing behavior of the earlier years of television (Lin). Surprisingly, it is not only the parental figures in the family who can control what is watched via the VCR. Lindlof, Shatzer, and Wilkinson found that children as young as 3 years old could understand how to operate a VCR; moreover, they could also make demands on their parents as to what to watch and when to watch it. In general, although the VCR may take away from other social activities, such as going to the cinema, it also can create a convenient family-viewing environment.

The new generation of VCR-technology, the Personal Video Recorder (PVR), promises to make television viewing even more convenient (Andreasen). The early models (TiVO and ReplayTV), which hit the market in 1999, are computer units that empower viewers by allowing them to pre-select what programs, content, personalities, or topics they are interested in and then leaving the PVR to scan the available programming and record all user selected items (up to 20 hours, with the ability to record several programs at once). The programs can be played back at the viewer’s leisure, and current models allow viewers to skip commercials. This device has the potential, therefore, to move some of the locus of power of the network television programmer to family viewers.

On the one hand, this new technology can improve the family viewing experience by helping parents select programs suitable for the entire family (a feat that many hoped would be realized with the V-chip, but this has yet to happen). On the other hand, if one family member dominates the PVR, then the scope of viewing possibilities for the rest of the family is greatly diminished (Andreasen). Moreover, if consumers retain the ability to ignore the commercial segments of the programming, it is unlikely that the television-advertising world will just sit back and lose money. A likely consequence would be that television programming would begin to include more product placement and in-program commercials, making the delineation between television and the marketplace even more vague (Andreasen).

Co-viewing and Mediation

One of the most commonly cited problems with the role of the television in the American household is the lack of co-viewing between parents and their children. By the early 1990s, as will be discussed in more detail below, more children had two television sets in their home than they did two parents, making constant co-viewing practically impossible. Research has shown, however, that there is a great need for both co-viewing and parental mediation in order to enhance the pro-social possibilities of television and to abate its negative influences.

Parent’s beliefs about the effects of television on their children will most likely affect their control of their children’s home viewing (Abelman; Sprafkin, Gadow, and Abelman). Studies by Abelman showed that parental attitudes toward television affect the amount and types of direct intervention. Those parents whose primary concern was the cognitive effects of viewing were more likely to discuss content of the programs with their children. Parents concerned with behavioral effects were more likely to mediate and focused their control on restricting when and what type of programming watched.

Gunter and his colleagues (Gunter and Svennig; Gunter and McAleer) found that children whose parents who did not see television as having negative effects, or who did not see the need to restrict viewing were heavy viewers of commercial television. Amount of co-viewing of family programs has also been predicted by parent’s positive orientation toward television and its possible socialization of children (Dorr, Kovaric, and Doubleday). The results of positive parental attitudes should be encouragement to watch, selection of beneficial programs for preschoolers, and, hopefully, a positive model for children in selecting good programming (St. Peters, Fitch, Huston, Wright, and Eakins).

Weaver and Barbour add that mediation also includes the “subtle, unintentional influence of . . . adults to shape children’s physical and social world in terms of what they view on television” (236). According to Mills and Watkins, parents are less likely to mediate if they do not perceive television to have any effect, either harmful or beneficial, on their children.

Parental mediation of television comes in many forms, for instance, encouragement, discouragement, co-viewing, interaction, or any attempt to influence children’s viewing patterns. Bybee, Robinson, and Turow identified three types of parental guidance: restrictive guidance, evaluative guidance, and unfocused guidance. Restrictive guidance is the authoritative approach, focusing on limiting viewing of certain kinds of programs, encouraging viewing of other types, and switching the channel to deal with objectionable content. Evaluative guidance is the most interactive approach, engaging children in a discussion of what is going on both on and off the screen. Unfocused guidance is the most comprehensive approach, including co-viewing with the child, encouraging specific programming, and discussing content.

Within the domain of restrictive guidance are rules. Rules are a form of parental mediation that limit television viewing. Research has been conducted to relate rule making to parent disciplinary styles, number of family members, number of television sets in the household, parental attitudes toward television, and so forth. The evidence suggests that rule making can be used to increase children’s learning from television as well as to attempt to minimize negative effects of televiewing.

Buckingham found that when interviewing parents, they “tended to exaggerate the degree of control over their children’s viewing” (258). He surmised that this was because as good parents it was their duty to protect their children from the “corrupting” influence of television. Rossiter and Robertson found that mothers reported more rules than their children did, and that upper-class mothers were more likely to give the socially responsible answer of having more control over their children’s viewing.

In larger families, control of children’s viewing appears to be more lax. Buckingham noted that in larger families the children found they were under less scrutiny and it was easier to escape parental rules. There were more television sets, so the parents found it more difficult to enforce viewing rules. When older siblings were left in charge, they often did not ensure that younger children abided by the rules. Younger children had it easier because the older children had already fought the battles with parents and had gotten the rules relaxed. In their research, Gross and Walsh also found that as the number of TV sets in the household increased, the amount of parental regulation decreased.

According to the most recent data collected by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), the vast majority of parents have some sort of rules when it comes to children’s television viewing (Schmitt). Roughly three-quarters of the 3rd graders in their study had limits on the amount of television they could watch, with most restricted to one or two hours a day (with more relaxed rules on the weekends). For 6th and 9th graders, fewer reported having such rules, but for those who did, the rules were essentially the same as for the 3rd graders. In addition, almost all children had some sort of content restriction on their viewing. For younger viewers, offensive language was the main issue of contention; for older viewers, more restrictions, especially on sexual material, were in place. The violence issue was more salient for those children who live in urban areas than those in suburban areas. Moreover, rule making decreases with the child’s age (Schmitt; Lin and Atkin). Attempts to encourage or regulate children’s viewing become less effective as children get older. “It appears, however, that many television viewing habits are established early, so the experiences of children during the first 5 or 6 years of their lives may indeed have long-term consequences for the ways in which they use the medium” (Huston and Wright 182).

Parental mediation is relatively rare, however (Desmond, Singer, and Singer). The majority of parents does not have or enforce viewing restrictions (Gross and Walsh). In the absence of mediation, the presence of restrictions can have adverse effects (Desmond, Singer, and Singer). If parents call attention to or react strongly to a violent scene, they are conveying tacit approval of the antisocial behavior.

Whereas rule making is intended to limit viewing and the exposure to the negative effects associated with television, encouragement by parents is intended to emphasize the positive elements of television. St. Peters et al. conducted a two-year longitudinal study of parents of 3- and 5-year-olds and found that parents of 5-year-olds encouraged public television most. (It should be noted that this study was conducted before Nickelodeon and Disney began offering curriculum-based educational programming for young children.) Sesame Street was recommended by 65% of the parents and other PBS programs by 32%. For those turning 7-years old, only 28% named Sesame Street, but 31% named other PBS shows, 33% nature shows, and 30% children’s specials. The most frequent reasons for parents recommending particular times to watch television were the convenience of the parents (35% for 5-year olds; 19% for 7-year olds), to produce behavior change (e.g., to get the child to calm down; 15%), to occupy the child (9%), or when a special program such as Sesame Street was on (9%).

Parents who encourage viewing particular programs at particular times are not simply pro-television; instead, they appear to be thoughtful and careful about their children’s viewing. They usually encourage child-appropriate viewing that may be beneficial and they coview general audience programs with their children more than parents who do not encourage television viewing. This finding is consistent with Dorr et al.’s (1989) findings for older children showing that coviewing was predicted by positive parent orientations to television. (1421)

In addition to recommending particular programs, many parents use the “safe harbor” reputations of channels such as Nickelodeon, Disney, Discovery Channel, and PBS as guides for encouraging their children to watch educational programming.

Television as a reflection of the American family

The American family has changed dramatically during the past 50 years. In the 1940s and 1950s, a stay-at-home mom and an on-the-job dad typified the internal structure of the family. The external structure was grounded in a close-knit community in which neighbors looked after each other’s kids, and grandma and grandpa often lived nearby and served as supplementary caregivers. During the 1960s these dominant community and family patterns began to change, and by the 1970s a major internal and external restructuring of the prototypical American family had taken place. In many instances, close-knit communities had been replaced by urban or suburban anonymity. Moreover, volatile job markets and shifting societal norms and expectations for success and well-being influenced families to move away from their roots, creating a U-Haul generation. By the mid-1980s, half of all U.S. marriages were ending in divorce, contributing to a substantial increase in the number of single mothers in the workforce. In addition, the rampant consumerism of this decade created a perceived need in dual-parent households for both parents to be gainfully employed. If the parents were not at home, younger children typically were in daycare, and professional childcare providers became one of the fastest growing occupational categories of the recent era.

The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has conducted annual nationwide surveys about families since the early 1970s. A NORC report entitled “The Emerging 21st Century Family” (Smith) indicates just how much the American family evolved in the latter quarter of the Twentieth Century. Among the major changes are the following: (1) whereas most American families two decades ago included children, by the turn of the century kids were in just thirty-eight percent of homes; (2) although two married parents with children aptly described the typical family unit a generation ago, by 2000 that type of family could be found in only one in four households; (3) the most typical household at the turn of the century was that of an unmarried person with no children, which accounted for one-third of all U.S. households (double the 1990 rate); (4) whereas three out of four adults were married a generation ago, only slightly more than half of them were by 2000; (5) divorce rates more than doubled between the 1960s and the 1990s; (6) the number of women giving birth out of wedlock increased dramatically over the past generation, from five percent of births to nearly one-third of births; and (7) the portion of children living with a single parent jumped over a generation from one out of twenty to approximately one out of five children. In other words, those who see families only in stereotypical terms of a mother, father, and two plus children have a very inaccurate image of families.

This brings into question, therefore, how the average American family is portrayed on television. Stephanie Coontz emphasized the importance of this question in a sociological history of American families:

Our most powerful visions of traditional families derive from images that are still delivered to our homes in countless reruns of 1950s television sit-coms. When liberal and conservatives debate family policy, for example, the issue is often framed in terms of how many ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ families are left in America. (23)

Several scholars have systematically examined how families are portrayed on television. Perhaps the most comprehensive examination is an investigation entitled “Five Decades of Families on Television,” by James D. Robinson and Thomas Skill. A total of 630 fictional television series that featured a family and were telecast between 1950 and 1995 were examined. All of these series aired on one of four commercial networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC); seventy-two percent were situation comedies and twenty-eight percent were dramas. The investigators profiled numerous ways in which the depiction of families on television has evolved over time, several of which are noteworthy.

One major change over time has been in the type of programming in which families are portrayed. In the 1950s, eighty-five percent of the families portrayed were in situation comedies and fifteen percent were in dramas. The proportion of families depicted in situation comedies decreased to seventy-seven percent in the 1960s, and to sixty-five percent in the 1970s. At this point, a slight reversal of this trend occurred, with sixty-seven percent of television’s families presented in situation comedies in the 1980s and seventy-six percent in situation comedies in the 1990s.

Families with children have become increasingly prominent in television programs over time. In the 1950s, twenty-five percent of television’s families were childless; in the 1960s, twenty-four percent had no children; in the 1970s, twenty-three percent; in the 1980s, seventeen percent; and in the 1990s, fewer than three percent of the families on television were childless. Whereas a decreasing proportion of real-life families had children as the 20th century progressed, television featured a countervailing trend.

A similar pattern of disparity in real-world and television families was also found in terms of the size of families. As we have mentioned, the size of America’s real families decreased rather dramatically as the century progressed. In contrast, television families have tended to get larger over time. In the 1950s, the average television family had 1.8 children; during the 1960s, 2.0 children; during the 1970s, 2.4 children; in the 1980s, 2.2 children; and during the 1990s, 2.5 children. Although the reasons for the divergence in these trends between real and television families are not entirely clear, it seems plausible that television writers and producers find it easier to create comedic and dramatic plots when children are part of the family. Nevertheless, with both trends, television is becoming less and less realistic in presenting representative families.

Jannette Dates and Carolyn Stroman systematically examined racial and ethnic depictions of families in a chapter entitled “Portrayals of Families of Color on Television.” They concluded that the social realities of African American, Asian American, Native Americans, and Latino families have not been portrayed accurately; rather their portrayals are the stereotyped views of minorities held by television industry decision makers.

In contrast, trends in television families have tended to mirror trends in real families on other essential dimensions. For example, the number of married people heading household has dropped during the past five decades, from a high of 68.2 percent during the 1950s to a low of 39.8% in the 1990s, paralleling census findings.

In many instances, substantial differences between television and real families have been rather over the years. For example, the “empty nest” family (in which children are grown and living away from home) has been a common configuration for real families for decades, yet such families are seldom presented on television. According to Robinson and Skill’s analysis, no such families appeared on television in the 1950s and during the first half of the 1990s, and the only decade in which more than one percent of television’s families were empty nesters was the 1980s. On the other hand, families with children headed by a father who is a single parent are rare according to census data, ranging from one percent in the 1950s to just over three percent in the 1990s. Yet such families consistently have been prominent on television, ranging from seventeen percent in the 1950s, to a high of twenty-eight percent in the 1970s, to twenty-three percent in the 1990s. In some of these instances, it would appear that television’s deviation from real-world orthodoxy might well initially have been arbitrary; however, when such conventions arose, they have tended to remain part of television’s popular culture. What, if any, effects such aberrant depictions have on viewers’ perceptions of reality has been of interest to numerous scholars.

Concerns about Impact

Concerns about the way families are depicted on television are grounded typically in assumptions that such portrayals will be assimilated into the psychological reality of the viewing public. Theories such as Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory or George Gerbner’s cultivation theory (e.g., Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli) suggest that such media effects can and do occur, for better and for worse. Psychologists Jerome and Dorothy Singer (e.g., Singer, Singer, and Rapacznski) have underscored such concerns, arguing that television has as much potential to influence the family as does the home environment, parental behavior, and the socioeconomic milieu of the family. Moreover, several influential research summaries have reached the conclusion that such concerns are valid, after examining considerable empirical evidence of media effects on families. For example, the National Institutes of Mental Health, in their summary of research about television’s impact, concluded that the behaviors in “television families almost certainly influence viewers’ thinking about real-life families” (Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar 70). But what type of influence?

Recent research by Bryant, Aust, Bryant, and Venugopalan found that, contrary to what many very vocal television commentators (especially recent political ones) have said, the families portrayed on prime time television are psychologically healthy, when measured by standard clinical psychological criteria. This research included the oft-cited Connors of Roseanne and Bundys of Married with Children. The authors emphasize that psychological health is not the only aspect of the television family with which researchers should be concerned, but as a political or soapbox scapegoat, claims of aberrant television families do not stand up to empirical assessments.

What Next?

With television and families both changing so dramatically, it would be foolish to predict the future regarding the interface of these two dynamic social institutions. If the past is in any way prologue to the present, however, it is almost certain that their fates will be inextricably intertwined.

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Authors: J. Alison Bryant is an Annenberg Fellow in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Her primary research interests are in network analysis, organizational communication, television and family, and television and children.

Jennings Bryant is Professor and senior endowed chairholder in the College of Communication & Information Sciences at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Institute for Communication Research. His research interests are entertainment theory, media effects, television and family, and television and children.

The co-authors are co-editors of Television and the American Family, 2nd ed. (Erlbaum, 2001). Despite totally incompatible television viewing interests (HGTV/MTV versus ESPN/Mystery TV), the two Bryants have remained the best of friends for 25 years. The family photo was taken in 1977; obviously both members of the dynamic duo have “matured” considerably since then.

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