WATCHING TELEVISION, A MATTER OF LIFE COURSE by Ksenia Frolova
My PhD research examines how television is viewed in the family context, with a particular focus on technology and parenting. The study is based on a survey, in which 152 participants took part, and 12 qualitative semi-structured interviews with families (conducted between August and November 2014). All participants had at least one child (40.6% of participating families had 1 child, 49.3% had 2 children, 10.1% had 3 or more children), and the majority of families that took part in the study had young children under the age of 5 (76% of participating families had at least 1 child under the age of 5, while for 61% of participating families all children in the household were under the age of 5). The interviews were conducted in participants’ homes, and all members of the family were invited to participate, including the children. All names in this blog post are pseudonyms.
When I present my findings at conferences, I am often asked why my data suggests that – contrary to the findings of Ofcom and industry reports (which show that the main way people watch programmes continues to be at the time of broadcast - 88% (Ofcom, 2015)) - audiences do not watch that much broadcast TV: only 39.47% out of 152 participating families in my study choose ‘broadcast television’ as a response to the question of ‘Which television services do you use on your media devices?’(see figure 1). In this blog post I want to address this question, and offer some reflections on the issue of studying audience’s everyday media consumption practices in general, and television viewing in particular.
Figure 1. Survey question 17 – Which television services do you use on these technologies?
In line with long-standing debates on the nature of audiences in Media Studies, I want to stress the importance of being extremely sensitive to the question of what we mean by the term ‘audience’ in any discussion of everyday practices of media use, and the importance of contextualizing our research with regard to specific characteristics of our chosen audience group in mind. I also want to argue that the concept of the life course is extremely useful and important for such contextualization, as it offers an improvement on the concept of chronological age, which is often used when describing the studied audience group. While the factor of chronological age does not provide much detail of what is going on in individual’s life, as Simone Scherger points out in her work, the concept of the life course can shed much more light on media consumption practices.
During the interview, one of the participants in my study was gently teasing her husband for his recent purchase of an expensive big screen smart TV, wondering if it was indeed a ‘smart’ and justified purchase, given that they rarely watch TV anymore. However, during the conversation with her husband, Annabelle also finally admitted that ‘We will [watch television] again, that’s the thing, this is just a very short phase of our lives! [talking to the baby in her arms] When you eventually go to bed reliably, early, and stay asleep, then mummy and daddy will again be sat in front of the telly comatosed for hours! Yes, we will!’ (25-34 years old, Norfolk, two children under 5). This concept of the life phase, stage, or course identified by Annabelle here is central to the discussion of television viewing practices in my study. The survey and interviews I have conducted with parents showed that parenthood, especially its early stages, is a unique phase in the life course that alters multiple things in individual’s lives, including television/media consumption and its practices.
My study of a particular audience group, mostly parents of young children under the age of 5, has revealed that for this audience group television viewing is rarely accidental but - in most cases - carefully thought through, purposeful and planned. In this regard, it comes with (and is shaped by) specific attitudes towards television, influenced by lifestyle and specific conditions of parenting. For instance, television advertising was not simply described as ‘annoying’, but also as ‘time consuming’, which makes recording programmes and watching them ad-free not simply a ‘time-shifting convenience’, but rather a time-saving measure, meaning parents can watch more of the actual content in the limited leisure time that they have. Similarly, morning television viewing routines (particularly in those families, where both parents were in full time employment) often presented a case of specific ‘work-family’ strategies’, aimed to help parents organize their time more efficiently, in order to deal with the pressures of busy lifestyles. As Megan explained the logic behind her children’s morning television viewing routine: ‘We try not to let them watch in the morning, but they usually watch about half an hour. Yeah, when we are getting ready, because it is a bit of a rush in the morning’ (Megan, 35-44 years old, Norfolk, two children under 5).
The existence of children, particularly small children, and the pressures of balancing employment with family life significantly constrain time for many activities, including television viewing, as well as requiring parents to develop new attitudes towards time, work, leisure and media. And most importantly, the routines and viewing practices developed in the process are not set in stone, but are subject to constant change, linked to certain transitions and phases in the life course. Taking the life course approach to television audiences provides a needed context to the study of the medium, and allows for an exploration of television viewing as a ‘lived’ experience -one that is dynamic and moving, constantly changing and transitioning together with its audience. Such an approach also reminds us of the fact that looking at statistical data of television use, for instance, is not sufficient enough, as quantitative data does not account for changes that audiences are undergoing and their ‘journey’ as individuals and members of the audience. To go back to the question that I am often asked when presenting my findings, it is important to stress that I do not make a claim that the findings of my study should be generalized to the wider population and be taken as a sign of a changing nature of audiences’ engagement with television; rather, I suggest that they are very specific to the particular experience of parenting, as well as to the particular stage of life course, highlighting the importance of context in the study of audience’s everyday media consumption practices.
Ksenia Frolova is a third year PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia. Her current project, funded by the University of East Anglia, is a qualitative study of families, which focuses on how media technologies are used in the home, and in what ways they affect the contemporary experiences of parenting.
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