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Understanding Television Without Television: A Study of Suspended Television Viewing

Abstract: This study investigates television as an important dimension of everyday experience by examining the facets of television viewing that are normally taken for granted, and analyzing its ability to produce habits of perception, activity, and experience. The method used to explore this issue involved a take-home assignment given to 150 sociology students who were instructed to perform a television “desocialization” exercise in which they were to watch the television without switching it on for thirty minutes and report their reactions. The results of these reports reveal six categories of experience: (1) Initial reactions: boredom and feeling foolish, (2) “New” sensations and the suspension of time, (3) Emergence of television habits, and the “great urge,” (4) The “haunted” television as a social object, (5) Phenomenological production of television “watching,” and (6) Loneliness. The results of this study point to various ways that television viewing has become a routinized and unexamined part of the everyday lives of many Americans.

“TV is a world that it always there, at least in unrealized form, even when the set is turned off.”
– Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (2000: 174)

Introduction

There is little doubt that the television is an important component of the everyday lives of the members of modern societies. Recent studies suggest that the average American watches three to four hours of television each day (Nielsen, 2000). While this does not appear to be a particularly striking statistic, projecting this data through time reveals a more remarkable pattern. The average three-hour-per-day television viewer will spend almost 1100 hours watching television annually, or forty-five uninterrupted days each year (that is, one and one-half months with no sleep). Expanding this statistic still further, over the course of a seventy year life-span the average television viewer will have invested the equivalent of eight years in uninterrupted television viewing. This is a staggering statistic and is compounded still further by research that reveals that a television is switched-on for an average of seven hours each day in the American household (Putnam, 2000), suggesting that when at home even though an individual may not be watching the television they are likely to be in its presence. Television viewing is not only the dominant American leisure time activity, it is also the third most common patterned human activity next to work and sleep (Putnam, 2000).

This study explores television as an important dimension of everyday experience, examining the taken-for-granted dimensions of television viewing, and its ability to produce habits of perception, activity, and experience. The question which motivates this research is what kind of a social object is the television? While television is often treated as a communications technology, as a “toaster with pictures” (Mayer, 1983), it is less frequently explored as a social object. This very impersonal treatment of television is odd given the nearly constant presence of television in the domestic lives of Americans, its significance as an avenue for what Horton and Wohl (1956) have called “para-social interaction,” and its identification as a source of companionship as an “invisible family member” (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorelli, 1986; Bryant and Bryant, 2001). What follows is an inductive investigation into television viewing as an ordinary, and everyday, activity.

The Use of Television in Everyday Life

The pervasiveness of the television in the domestic sphere has been quite clearly illustrated in the ethnographic examinations of television viewing by James Lull (1990), which frequently describe the living spaces of American homes as situated, not for conversation or any other functional activity, but instead for optimal television viewing. Often, entire rooms are devoted to television viewing, and when a television is present in a room the furniture is typically situated so that it can be easily seen from all vantage points. The television, as Tichi (1991) has argued, has both literally and figuratively become the “electronic hearth” of the American home.

Media scholar Roger Silverstone (1993, 1994) has identified the television as a “tele-technological system” that is fundamental to the everyday life experiences of human beings in contemporary societies. He writes that:

Watching television and discussing television and reading about television takes place on an hourly basis … Television accompanies us when we wake up, as we breakfast, as we have our tea and as we drink in bars. It comforts us when we are alone. It helps us sleep. It gives us pleasure, its bores us and sometimes it challenges us. It provides us with opportunities to be both sociable and solitary … although we have had to learn how to incorporate the medium into our everyday lives we now take television entirely for granted. We want more of it (some of us); we complain about it (but we watch it anyway); but we do not understand very well (nor do we feel the need to understand) how it works … Our experience of television is of a piece of our experience of the world: we do not expect it to be, nor can we imagine it to be, significantly otherwise (Silverstone, 1994: 3).

Clearly, television has become an essential aspect of the contemporary experience; in fact it could be argued that the television is the “centerpiece” of the private lives of the inhabitants of the modern world. The furniture in homes is arranged around the television, lives are lived by the schedules of television programming, and the television has become a friend, companion, and even babysitter (see Gauntlett and Hill, 1999 for examples).

Silverstone argues that one of the basic functions of television is its ability to provide a sense of security in the everyday world. Even though television produces its own set of widely recognized disturbances (problems associated with violence, sex, representation, isolation, advertising, and simulation), he suggests that the primary role of television in the modern world has been to create patterns of habits and routines of everyday life. Building upon sociologist Anthony Giddens’ (1984, 1990) notion of “ontological security,” Silverstone contends that television occupies a very fundamental aspect of everyday social reality because it provides a sense of community, order, ritualism, and normality to everyday lives. This is especially important, as Giddens (1990) argues, because one of the primary consequences of the emergence of modern societies has been the collapse of traditions as taken-for-granted models for living. Television has become a new source of tradition, as a system for “the visible and hidden ordering of everyday life … providing a focus of our daily rituals … extending our reach and our security in a world of information … which threatens to overwhelm us but also to provide a basis for our claims for citizenship or membership of community and neighborhood” (Silverstone, 1994: 19).

One of the major limitations of Silverstone’s work, however, is its lack of “everydayness.” As Gauntlett and Hill (1999: 9-10) point out, Silverstone’s work “proposes a number of densely worded theoretical hypotheses, but contains little grounded empirical analysis of either television or everyday life as they are actually experienced in the world.” This study seeks to fill this gap by exploring television viewing as an everyday activity and the role that it plays in shaping the immediate context of experience. Emphasis is placed upon the routines, habit formations, and what Alfred Schutz (1967) refers to as the taken-for-granted “stocks of knowledge,” surrounding television viewing.

Method

The method used in this study is derived from a take-home assignment given to 150 sociology students in introductory-level courses over a period of five years, from 1995-2000 . In this assignment student participants were asked to perform a television “desocialization” exercise for thirty minutes and at its conclusion write an account of their experiences. The instructions for the exercise are described as follows:

In a place where you can be alone, watch the television for an uninterrupted period of thirty minutes. The ‘catch’ is, during this thirty minutes do not switch on the television. In short, ‘watch the empty box.’ While doing this try not to get distracted from your ‘television viewing,’ and pay complete attention to the full-range of your experiences. Be aware of what you see, hear, think, your bodily sensations, and any emotions that you might have. Try not to get caught up in daydreaming, making ‘to-do’ lists, the ringing of the telephone, and don’t fall asleep. To the best of your ability, stay in the present moment, in your immediate surroundings and in the presence of television. Watch for the full thirty minutes as this length of time is important in producing a rich response to the exercise.

No other instructions were provided, beyond simple clarification of the exercise. Participants were not prompted to “look for” specific results, or to enter the experience with any expectations. The most immediate response to the description of the exercise was most commonly one of confusion and even anger: “What? Why are we doing this? What are we supposed to experience? Am I just supposed to sit there and look at an empty screen? This sounds stupid and pointless!” The typical reply to this very natural line of questioning from the participants was to suggest that “one should enter the exercise without expectations: do not interpret or imagine your experience until you have actually experienced it.”

The use of this exercise as a sociological method is a very unique way of exploring the role of television in everyday life, and the multidimensional aspects of the individual engagement of televisual technologies. It has its origins in two traditions of sociological research. First, it has its most general roots in the sociological tradition of ethnomethodology, a method of sociological investigation which attempts to reveal the unspoken assumptions of everyday life by “bracketing” or “breaching” the boundaries of normative conventions (Garfinkel, 1967). Early ethnomethodologists relied almost entirely upon “breaching experiments” whereby the “rules” of everyday social life were violated or suspended, thus revealing a world of “social facts” that were typically hidden from conscious awareness as well as sociological analysis. Second, this exercise stems most directly from the tradition of “desocialization” inspired by Bell (1985), and extended by McGrane (1993, 1994; Bell and McGrane, 1999). The “desocialization” tradition is motivated toward the development of a “Zen Sociology,” which combines sociological theory and practices of Zen Buddhism in the personal investigation of everyday life. In fact, the television experiment used in this study is derived, with some slight modifications, from McGrane’s (1993, 1994) series of “UNTV” desocialization exercises. One of the general purposes of desocialization is to become aware of and unlearn the habitual patterns by which our everyday reality is socially constructed and reified. Thus, through suspending the primary assumptions of a very ordinary social activity like television viewing (e.g. that to watch a television it must first be “turned-on”), watching television becomes a “non-ordinary” event, and the social expectations surrounding its habitual use are revealed in a new way.

The value of using this unconventional method for the study of television as a social object is threefold. First, the exercise utilized in this study has been typically employed didactically to support critical investigations into television (see McGrane, 1993, 1994). However, experience with this exercise has revealed that its applicability is much more extensive than that of a pedagogic tool. Instead, we argue that the application of this exercise can also be directed towards the general study of television as an object of everyday life. Second, the television exercise used in this study allows for the patterns of television viewing to be investigated in a new way, revealing insights into the mundane and more experiential dimensions of television viewing. Along these lines, this exercise provides entry into the more formal aspects of television viewing. Since participants are prevented from becoming engrossed in the contents of watching television, they are confronted with the television as a technological medium of communication, and subsequently are compelled to explore the taken-for-granted habits that surround it. Finally, the exercise allows for participants to experience one of the basic units of “television time” – the 30 minute slot – in a novel way. Participants place themselves in the presence of the television, but in such a way that they are removed from “television time” and are instead confronted with the television in “real time.” Thus, participants are placed in the everyday context of the television and are asked to explore it as a social object, as it occurs in the natural flow of time, without the programming by which it is typically epitomized. The following is a qualitative analysis of the responses to this exercise.

Results

The written reports of participants reveal six distinct categories of experience that can be used to characterize their responses to the exercise. These six categories are: (1) Initial reactions: boredom and feeling foolish, (2) “New” sensations and the suspension of time, (3) Emergence of television habits, and the “great urge,” (4) The “haunted” television as a social object, (5) Phenomenological production of television “watching,” and (6) Loneliness.

Initial Reactions: Boredom and Feeling Foolish

Initial reactions to the exercise are typically unsurprising. Most participants are immediately confronted with the awkwardness of watching an “empty” television. The following reactions are representative of these initial responses:

The first thing I noticed while executing this experiment is that I became very uncomfortable while watching the television turned off.

As I sat watching the blank screen on the television, the first thing that crossed my mind was that I felt kind of stupid, that was before the feeling of boredom set in.

The immediate experience of boredom is a very common theme with many participants who often describe the exercise as “the ‘boringist’ 30 minutes I’ve ever spent.” As this participant reports:

As I sat in front of the television, I felt a sense of boredom. This was only after the first few minutes. I kept on looking at the clock hoping that time would speed up so I could get on with my life.

Often this experience of boredom becomes translated into feelings of self-conscious foolishness, and even anger, as these responses suggest:

I felt strange and hoped no one in my family would come home while I was doing this experiment.

I actually felt like I was getting mad at the TV. I began to hate it. I hated it for all those wasted days of viewer’s lives they spent watching it, all the misrepresentations it created, the messages it sent. I hated it for being the reason for this assignment.

The range of my emotions started with resentment for the teacher who was making me spend my daily break missing my favorite soap opera, ‘General Hospital’, then changed to happiness when I discovered new sounds and smells.

What these initial responses reveal about television viewing is something very ordinary, but quite important. A television switched-off is boring, uninteresting and difficult to pay attention to. A television is not “just another appliance … a toaster with pictures” as the FCC Chairman Mark Fowler remarked in 1983 (Mayer, 1983). Television is a unique appliance with an extraordinary capacity to capture attention, and transform human experience and social space when it is turned on. This point is illustrated by the accounts of these participants:

At the 20 minute mark, I became extremely bored … I noticed how boring a TV set is. It is just plain and black. Not a very fun appliance to look at.

Sitting and staring at the blank television for any amount of time is boring and could be compared to being just as exciting as staring at the wall or the carpet. However, there is a difference … I don’t expect any kind of mental stimulation from the carpet or the wall … I wasn’t really watching tv, I was staring at it … like staring at a book without reading it. The normal response to a television is that you see it and if it’s not already turned on you turn it on and engage in watching it.

A television is not typically encountered as a physical object, an element of a room. Instead, a television is defined by what it does, and how it shapes social experience. There are specific taken-for-granted expectations surrounding the use of television some of which are only revealed when the normative structure of television viewing is violated. A television is expected to do something – capture attention, distract, inform, entertain. As one participant remarked:

I stared at it, looked at my reflection in the blank tv screen … I couldn’t focus on the turned off television for very long … to watch a blank tv screen is impossible … nothing happens … nothing changes.

This statement reflects an important insight into the television: the presence of television comes with the expectation of change, and its ability to transform the immediate context of experience.

“New” Sensations and the Suspension of Time

Considering the number of hours Americans spend watching television, the issue of time and the way time is experienced while viewing is an important factor in understanding the role of television as a social object. The first notable result regarding time is that the amount of time spent watching the blank television screen seemed to expand compared with a 30 minute period of television time. This notion is expressed by the following comments made by the participants:

Sitting in front of the turned off tv was a constant struggle for the entire time.

The time seemed to have gone by impossibly slow when I stared at the gray-black screen. I wanted to turn it on just to let the time go by … I felt like it was a waste of time, since there were so many other things I wanted to do.

The time of this project felt like an eternity. I couldn’t have watched the time tick away any slower. The minutes felt like hours, and I kept saying to myself ‘it is only a half an hour, it could not be lasting this long’.

Television is perhaps the most influential aspect of the mass media as so many people use it as their primary source of information and entertainment. In his analysis of modern mass society C. Wright Mills (1959) argues that the media represents the dominant type of communication. According to this idea the role of the public is reduced to that of a media market, and individuals who are passively exposed to the mass media subsequently become subject to its influence through a process of what he calls “animated distraction” (ibid.: 315). This passive experience of media engagement is clearly by the amount of “distracted” time spent being exposed to the ideas of the mass media while viewing television. Many times people are not as aware, as they might otherwise be, of the passage of real time while watching television. Television time seems to be compressed or collapsed in comparison to real time. This point is reflected in Giddens’ (1990) description of what he calls “time and space distantiation,” a consequence of the modern experience resulting from the ability of information systems to change the subjective experience of time. This notion is expressed by the participants’ comments about the way time seemed to expand when they watched the blank screen:

I thought of how much shorter a half hour seems with the tv turned on.

I never realized how much time goes on while I am watching TV, its like I am in a whole other world, but you don’t realize it.

Time seemed to go by a lot slower than it usually did when I watch a half-hour of television.

The other thing I noticed was that the half-hour time seemed to last for so long; this was quite unusual because when the TV is on the hour seems to go by all too quickly.

But then I looked at the clock and only two minutes had passed. Time seemed to go by in super slow motion. And in my head I kept comparing the time of this experiment with ‘The Simpsons’. And I kept telling myself, well ‘The Simpsons’ show goes by so fast this experiment would too, but I guess I was wrong.

Only when taking part in this experiment do participants think about the amount of time they spend watching television. An analysis of the experience of a half hour in real time makes the respondents more aware of the fact that it is real time that they are spending watching television, despite the fact that it seems to go so much quicker. As one respondent remarked:

The span of a half-hour television program can seem to go by very quickly and then blend into the next half-hour, so that it is easy to be surprised when it is realized just how much time has been spent watching television programs. While watching the television without the power turned on, it becomes evident that a half-hour is actually a valuable amount of time.

These statements combine to make clear the point that television viewers are not aware that they are spending so much time watching television. This lack of awareness regarding the time spent viewing also increases the exposure of individuals to the influence of the media messages that are so heavily embedded in the programming.

In addition to thinking about time in a different way, participants also reported noticing their experiences of various “new” sensations:

The first thing I noticed was how dirty my screen was.

My senses became more alert and I came to realize the habits I have while sitting and watching.

Looking at the blank television screen, I was feeling at ease with myself and it felt like my five senses were heightened.

I did notice that I could hear all of these different types of sounds in and around the house and could tell what was going on.

Participants noted that many of the things they were experiencing through their senses seemed new because they had not noticed them when they were watching television in the past. The following comments are examples of this idea:

I noticed that I was paying more attention to what was around me rather than focusing on the television.

While I felt a slight sense of stupidity sitting alone in a room, watching the television without it being turned on, I was much more aware of my surrounding than I ever am while immersed in watching television. While sitting in the break room in the back of our work building, surrounded by quietness, I could distinguish and recognize sounds and smells that I had never noticed in my months of working there.

I keep looking at this square box and begin to see it more as an object. The thoughts of the shows fade. I look at this box and wonder why it is black, why it is square, why it is the focal point of our lives. All the furniture in the room is arranged around it is such a way that there will not be too much light or that the pathway through the room will avoid being in front of it.

Staring at the television with it turned off I could hear the birds outside clearly, and could hear minimal sounds loudly. When watching the television with it turned on, all of the surroundings around me usually blocked out. I never hear the birds while watching television. I often ‘zone-out’ or ‘zone’ people out when I watch television.

These comments reveal the manner in which television can dictate the way an individual experiences the world around them. As McLuhan (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967) famously argued, “the medium is the message.” In other words, one of the most important roles of television is not to relay messages through its content, but rather to shape the context of the television viewing experience itself. As one participant noted:

It was hard to pay attention to the tv with it off. I could hear everything else going on. I think that my favorite thing about television is not the shows on it but the noise “space” it fills.

This response clearly supports McLuhan’s idea, as this participant realized, that the subject matter portrayed on television can be secondary to the way it can shape the viewers overall experience. The participants in this study felt that they were experiencing “new” sensations, but the reality is that they were always present. They simply went unnoticed because television viewing limited their ability to focus on other sensations that would otherwise have been experienced in the same environment.

Emergence of Television Habits, and the “Great Urge”

The process of suspending the taken-for-granted experience of television viewing is notable for its ability to reveal the nature of the habits surrounding the television. Many participants in this exercise describe what they commonly refer to as an “over-whelming urge” or a “strong desire” to turn the television on. While sitting in front of the “empty” television, one participant experienced the formation of a habit that he described as a “great urge to turn it on.” Others reported similar feelings:

I wanted to just turn on the television anything even commercials would have made me more comfortable. This drive to turn on the television was frighteningly strong. It makes television seem like an addiction.

At one point, I felt an urge to turn it on. I stretched out my leg and touched the power button with my big toe.

After a few minutes I began to feel a strong desire to press the power button.

My desire to turn the television on grew stronger and stronger as I watched the blank screen.

For some, the “urge” was so irresistible that they could not avoid succumbing to their desire to switch on the television, as this participant revealed:

I felt compelled to turn the tv on. It felt like I was missing out on something. A part of me questioned why I was sitting in front of the tv staring at a blank screen. Another part of me questioned what would be on if I were to stop doing the experiment and turn on the tv … Thinking these questions made the urge overwhelming, so I had to turn it on … Television seems to dictate how we feel.

The urge to turn on the television was only one of a series of habits which emerged surrounding television viewing. Other habits were frequently illustrated in the participants’ responses to the exercise, like the taken-for-granted routine of picking up the remote control:

When I sat in front of the tv I almost had an automatic reflex for reaching for the remote control.

When I first sat down, my first instinct was to grab the remote and surf the channels. I couldn’t help but hold the remote in my hand, even though I knew I wasn’t going to watch any television.

After a couple of minutes I had a strong feeling to grab the remote and start flipping through the channels, as an avid channel surfer it was weird and uncomfortable to not have the remote in my hand.

I’m just so used to sitting down in the living room and directly grabbing a hold of the remote to turn on the TV. Staring at the television set without turning it on made me feel very uncomfortable and powerless, without control of the television, as if my body and brain kept telling me to turn on the television as I usually do.

The presence of these habits proved to be surprisingly strong for participants, many of whom were beset by the violation of their television viewing routine. One participant described the exercise as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Another suggested that “it took a lot of concentration to not want to turn on the television.” Others more directly expressed the incongruity that watching a blank television produced:

I literally felt that I would lose my mind if I didn’t turn it back on.

Looking at the tv while its off was really difficult. It was driving me crazy for the first five minutes. I didn’t know what to do.

I felt this need to do something or watch something since I was sitting in front of the television set.

While these reports are not entirely unexpected, they do reveal the existence of a strong set of practical assumptions surrounding television viewing. As Giddens (1984) has argued, the meaningfulness of the everyday social world is derived from taken-for-granted assumptions that guide practical activities, and is based upon what he calls “practical consciousness.” Individuals are not necessarily cognitively aware of the meaningfulness of the television as an aspect of their everyday life, but television viewing is clearly an aspect of their “practical consciousness,” and the basis of a nexus of routines that are habitual, generally unspoken, and evidently powerful.

The “Haunted” Television as a Social Object

The responses of some participants of this exercise reveal an encounter with what Spiegel (1992: 115) calls “the Big Brother Syndrome.” Much like the characters confronted by “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), many participants had the experience of being watched through their television screens, as if the television had suddenly become inhabited by denizens of an electronic world. As the responses of these participants illustrate, the television creates the illusion of social presence. Because of this a television emptied of activity can be personified, or even identified as an instrument of surveillance:

I stared at the television, or maybe it was the other way around.

I felt that I was being watched.

I feel like I’m crazy. I feel like the television wants to be turned on.

This whole experience made me feel like I was interacting with a real person trying to build up a relationship.

As I looked at the screen, I felt like the TV was trying to talk to me. That feeling was so weird. But it almost seemed realistic to me that I was having a conversation with the TV screen. Its not that I actually talked to the screen or the screen actually talked to me. But, the whole experience was more mentally based.

I thought of all the sexy dancers that could be on MTV right now. It seemed as if the television was talking to me. Asking me to give it life.

Others, identified the empty television as lifeless, not only devoid of content but also inanimate:

Watching a television that has not been brought to life is quite boring. As I watched the dead television it was difficult to focus my attention on the blank screen.

What is important here is that the television is personified, as if it has a “spirit” or intention of its own. Watching television is understood as a strangely social event, a form of “parasocial interation” which provides what Horton and Wohl (1956) characterize as the “illusion of intimacy.”

These results parallel very directly what Jeffrey Sconce (2000: 166) has described as the “haunted tv.” In his work Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television he describes the historical correspondences between the rise of paranormal experiences and the development of technologies of mass media. For example, supernatural mediums of the late 19th century frequently described “contact” from the supernatural realm that came in form of telegraphic transmissions. Tappings on tables, walls, doors, or windows during seances, or in the presence of ghosts, were often identified as communications using Morse Code. Sconce suggests that the television has had its own supernatural associations. Films like Poltergeist, Videodrome, and Pleasantville have investigated the possibility of the electronic “possession” of the television by occult entities. Though the participants in this exercise do not strictly identify the television as being “possessed” by ghosts or spirits, their descriptions often personify the television as if it is so inhabited. While unusual, this result is not altogether surprising given the commonplace use of the television to create feelings of companionship (see Perloff and Krevans, 1987; Gauntlett and Hill, 1999 for examples).

Phenomenological Production of Television “Watching”

Perhaps the most surprising result of this study is the very common report by participants that, with the television turned off, they “watched tv” anyway. Many participants engaged in a phenomenological production of television programs while staring at the empty television screen. Participants frequently assembled television programs within their minds, imagining them within the boundaries of the screen. This is reflected in these accounts:

There was nothing in the television, but I could picture some of my favorite shows on the clear set. I wanted there to be something there, and finally I made my own show.

Every once in a while I tried to pretend that I was in fact watching a program and tried to remember an episode of some kind and replay it in my head.

Although I was watching a gray screen with the physical eyes, the mind’s eye created its own picture.

For some reason music songs began popping in my head and I was trying to picture some of the music videos on the blank screen in front of me.

I could already hear the laugh tracks of some played-out sitcom ringing in my ears, following clichéd punch lines from jokes older than myself.

As I looked at the tv, I tried to imagine that ‘Seinfeld’ was on, and actually I could picture it.

I let myself imagine television shows I knew, and I could hear the show-tunes coming out my head, or was it the set?

Participants experienced a cognitive production of television as a residue of the patterned and habitual everyday experience of television viewing. Often these accounts were described in great detail, like the following reports:

When I turned off the television it was as though it never went off. Beginning with the last scene in my mind, I began to picture what was happening. I hadn’t realized that this object had this much control over me that I couldn’t just turn it off without having to watch some sort of television in my mind. I continued to watch the blank screen and look at my reflection. I ‘saw’ in my mind an old western movie starring John Wayne that I had seen two weeks before. I was surprised at my brain, it was busy searching for the stored tv programs. I found myself taking part in the old western movie. I was especially impressed with the colors of the trees, horses, and sky which grabbed my attention when I originally saw the movie because the movie was made before the invention of color television.

I began to see things in my mind as if I were watching them on the television, it sort of became my own program. I started to envision the house I would like to buy and what it would look like inside and out, I started to feel very excited. I was thinking and seeing my future, the new car I wanted to buy and how it would look in my garage … The more I concentrated on listening to the program I could see it on my television. I could vividly see the movements of the actors and the expression of their faces. Then I started to feel joyful as if the program was a comedy and I could hear the jokes and see the actors and actresses faces as if it was real life.

I felt like I was in this daydreaming trance. I started imagining myself on television … I was imagining myself on the ‘Jenny Jones Show’ as a guest who changed from ‘geek to sheek.’ I could actually see myself walking out on the stage wearing a tight, revealing costume that showed this fake breast coming out of me … I saw myself on ‘Judge Judy,’ suing my ex-boyfriend for emotional distress and I could see Judge Judy snap and yell at me for speaking when it was not my turn. Then I could see myself as Superman’s wife, and I was wearing a Wonder Woman outfit fighting crime with him … I then saw myself on’ Oprah’ and the strange thing is that I could feel the emotions from the screen. I felt like I was in another world, as if whatever show I watch I was in it.

I wanted to turn the tv on. I’m, sure everyone doing this experiment did. The remote was sitting right next to my foot and it was dying to be touched. But I’d already decided that when the 30 minutes was up I was actually going to get up and turn it on – touch those unused buttons. I decided to pretend that I was on tv. First, I was Hope on ‘30 Something.’ Michael my husband on the show, was the best kisser in the world. Then I realized that as Hope, I had two stinky, yucky, bratty kids to take care of. So I decided to be in a movie instead. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be the main character in my favorite movie ‘Naked’ … I think watching tv turned off may be more fun (definitely more stimulating) than when its on.

Clearly, these participants did not actually believe that the scenes that emerged from their television “watching” were actually manifesting on the screen, but they did develop a conscious awareness of the ability of the mind to recall the images, sounds, individuals, and experiences that they had routinely consumed through television viewing. They experienced this process as unexpected, but surprisingly normal, which suggests that exposure to television programming has the ability to create a certain set of experiences that are internalized by ordinary viewers, what Alfred Schutz (1967) has referred to as taken-for-granted “stocks of knowledge.” It is as if, through their exposure to the television, individuals have learned to daydream in the language of television.

This result has significant implications, not only because it suggests that the television does not have to be “on” for it to be “watched”; but more importantly, it demonstrates a subjective internalization of television programming that is ultimately designed to facilitate consumerism (Mander, 1977). The television is not merely something that is produced within the frame of the screen. Instead, these results point to the power of television programming to become an important component of subjective experience, and potentially a filtering device through which everyday experiences can be interpreted.

Loneliness

Perhaps the most sobering result revealed by the responses to this experiment is the profound sense of loneliness experienced by the participants. As T. S. Eliot (1963, cited in Putnam, 2000: 217) once remarked, the television “permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” Many studies have reported that television viewing is correlated with loneliness (Rubin, Perse, and Powell, 1985; Perse and Rubin, 1990), and that the television is often used as a surrogate companion to displace the uncomfortable feelings that accompany being alone. Television commonly functions to imply the presence of another person. Solitary television viewers have the sense that they are accompanied and without the comfort this brings they are confronted with the reality that they are in fact alone. This finding is supported by the results of this study as participants commented on the frustration they experienced that emerged with the realization that they were alone:

I wanted to see an image, a face, but nothing came on. I wanted there to be something there.

The silence was killing me. I picked up the phone and called up some friends just to hear their voices so I would know I wasn’t the last person on earth.

Watching the television set at night with no one hanging around felt very lonely almost scary.

Nap time was always lonely for me, and this was kind of the same kind of experience. The feeling of knowing there are others around but not being able to communicate is almost frustrating.

These reports reveal the profound sense of loneliness the participants felt when the implied presence of another created by television was taken away. Television viewing can even go beyond making a person feel accompanied and may also induce feelings of companionship and intimacy. Watching television not only makes a person feel that they are not alone, but that they are in good company, like they would if they were among friends. Here, we can see Horton and Wohl’s (1956) idea of “para-social interaction” at work because the active engagement of viewers in watching television can facilitate a significant emotional investment in the programs they watch. This “illusion of intimacy” serves to offset feelings of loneliness even though these individuals are not involved in real interactions. The following responses represent the way the participants experienced television as an intimate companion:

I felt the tv is my companion because every afternoon when I come home from work, I turn it on and it honestly doesn’t make me feel so alone. Its probably because I can see other people on it and can hear them talk and interacting.

I started to feel a little lonely, like I had been left out of something … I realized that I truly did not know what I would do without a television in my life.

Finally, my observation period was over. Immediately I turned on the television. I felt a sense of normality and companionship.

The idea that simply switching on the television can create a sense of peace and avert loneliness is striking. Although the fact remains that whether the television is on or not, solitary viewers are alone, the negative feelings many associate with being alone are attenuated when the television serves as the companion they wish was actually there. This idea suggests then that television plays a social role in that interactions become less necessary if television can effectively create this “illusion of intimacy” and a sense of companionship without requiring the involvement of real people.

Conclusion

This study has pointed to the importance of the study of television viewing in the context of everyday life. The desocialization method employed in this research has illustrated, not only its effectiveness in the study of television as an everyday social object, but moreover it’s utility in producing a “grounded theory” (Glasner and Strauss, 1967) of television viewing. The results of this study illustrate several important conclusions. First, television is a social activity that is circumscribed by a series of taken-for-granted habits and routines that are primarily unacknowledged. The ability of routinized television viewing to produce “strongly felt” patterns of expected behavior surrounding the television is a significant outcome of this study. Second, the results demonstrate the potential of the television to become personified as a “social” being. These findings reinforce the outcomes of prior studies that have identified the television as a source of companionship which can be used to attenuate loneliness. However, the results of this study suggest a stronger claim, that the television is not merely a source of companionship, but it is often treated parasocially as a companion and a source of feelings of intimate connection with “others.” Third, the reports of the participants of this study suggest that the television not only provides individuals with an experience of social presence, but it also has the ability shape cognitive experience. Individuals able to reproduce the television viewing experience as a habit of the mind, and they often do this in the language of television. This result has significant implications for the traditions of media effects research which typically focuses on behavior and the contents of cognition, but which may find some utility in exploring how television shapes the form of cognition. Fourth, the results of this study indicate the significance of McLuhan’s adage the “medium is the message.” While the contents of television programming are an important domain of inquiry, this study points in a different direction. The formal aspects of television viewing, as McLuhan suggests, play a significant role in the construction of the experience of television. Those dimensions of everyday life that are commonly displaced by television viewing – the sounds and smells of one’s environment, the presence or absence of other people, the passage of time – are as important dimensions of the analysis of television as is television viewing itself. Finally, this study provides some evidence of the consequences of television in the production of “ontological security.” Television viewing not only provides a sense of companionship and serves to alleviate loneliness, but it also is a significant source of habit and routine for the structuring of thought, behavior, and the taken-for-granted processes of everyday life.

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Authors:

David Boyns is an Assistant Professor at California State University at Northridge. His interests are in the areas of sociological theory, media studies, cultural studies, the sociology of emotions, and the sociology of everyday life.

Desiree Stephenson is currently a masters degree student in the Sociology department at California State University at Northridge. Her interests include ethnic and race relations, political sociology and media studies.

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