Are Americans Falling Out of Love with Their Televisions?
By Steve Portigal at 10:33 am, Friday April 24 2009

The latest Pew study asks about what Americans see as luxuries vs. necessities, as part of a longitudinal study of attitudes towards major categories of goods.

Clear majorities in polls conducted since 1973 have said that their TV set is something they couldn’t do without. Yet the latest Pew Research Center survey suggests Americans’ long love affair with their TV sets may be cooling.

Whether prompted by the recession or by the lure of new computers and other devices that can display TV programs as well as other kinds of streaming video, barely half (52%) of the public now say a television is a necessary part of their lives. That’s a decline of 12 percentage points since 2006 and the lowest proportion since 1973 to view a television as essential — even lower than the 57% who said a TV set was a necessity when the question was first asked in 1973.

Young adults have led the march away from the TV screen: Only 38% of those 30 or younger say a TV is a necessity, a 15-point decline since 2006. In contrast, perceptions of a television set as a necessity declined by just 6 points to 68% among respondents or older

Now far be it for me to impugn Pew (who seem like they do really smart and interesting pulse-taking research), but as of 2007 99% of US households had at least one TV, and the average household had 2.24 sets. So what’s the relationship here between what people say and what people do? If you’ve already got a TV set, how hard is it to say it’s not a necessity? [Of course, more people are getting video content online so that’s part of the reason for the drop and Pew accounts for that, but I’m looking at the other issue]

I think we place a lot of extra importance on self-reported survey data, where people express opinions, out of context. There’s no behavioral data here about what people are actually doing (i.e., selling their TV sets to buy something more important, or holding off buying new TV sets, etc.) If people respond to the question about the importance of the TV in a new way, does that really mean the perception of the TV has changed or does it point to a different way to answer the question?

What do you think this bit of data means? What are the consequences or impacts? Who should be taking notice of it, and what should they do?

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9 Responses to “Are Americans Falling Out of Love with Their Televisions?”

    What if the writers’ strike, initiated near the end of 2007, provided the general public with a revelatory peek behind the infotainment curtain? And we saw that the television industry isn’t the efficient and egalitarian dream factory we were expecting to see, but a group of vertically-integrated, transnational corporations bent on certain specific, self-interested agendas. The sudden shortage of new scripted content, the rise of reality-television, and reruns of familiar episodes, the increase of audience attention invested in non-mainstream media (to get news and information unavailable from the slanted mouthpieces of the media establishment)…what if these factors also played their part in the popular devaluation of the broadly-defined medium of television?
    Pew (it seems to me) asks interesting questions, but doesn’t appear to ask respondents to clarify their answers, then proceeds to interpret simplified statistical responses into breaking news that raises more complex, conjectural questions.
    Maybe “luxury” appliances belong to an oblsolete vision of an unsustainable future. The promise intrinsic to our common, technological evolution probably depends upon the sacrifice of some devices previously regarded as necessary. I don’t miss 8Tracks, 45s, 78s, nor commercial interruptions. That’s not just me talking.

    Comment by Scott Ellington 04.26.09 @ 9:26 am

    Brilliant response, Scott. Maybe people don’t care about the TV device because they are less excited about the content nowadays and that’s changed dramatically due to the strike. I wonder about the perception of the hardware vs. the software in consumers’ minds, though. Is “watching TV” a necessary activity triangulated with is “having a TV” a necessary possession? Thanks for the thoughts!

    Comment by Steve Portigal 04.26.09 @ 12:23 pm

    Thank you! I think that our box(es)-of-choice have lately been proliferating, and that even 600 channels of moderately interesting dreck leads people to the same conclusion; that it was never really about the box, that it was always about desirable content.
    St. Elsewhere, I Spy, Hill Street Blues and Highlander were formerly series I just HAD to make myself available to watch each week. Now I find the pace, characterizations and narrative complexity of each of those (formerly) must-sees shows incredibly slow, shallow, simple and weak…via iTunes, without commercials!
    Looking back on my fifty years of voluntary addiction to appointment television, I’m amazed to see how oblivious of its tyrany I was.
    Back when, a complex matrix of television-related behaviors came bundled with the box. We’re all thinking far beyond that obsolete containmnet field, presently. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will fill the void it left, and by whom.
    Studios and networks still believe they call the shots. My money’s on Mutant Enemy, Red Board and other brands that actually design and execute content we actually want. That leaves the crucial role of funding production to entities as-yet unnamed. That entity could be us.

    Comment by Scott Ellington 04.26.09 @ 4:27 pm

    Scott – I agree that there are more boxes to watch things and I think the tentative steps towards convergence (with my laptop connected to my HDTV I can stream Netflix in my living room) are changing the equation. The rise of the DVD boxed sets and the way people watch the Wire, Sopranos, Dexter, in these marathons, are clearly creating some new use cases that I’m actually optimistic about. BitTorrent has eliminated a lot of my need for appointment TV (as the user experience between my VCR and the complex boxes and my very poor local cable infrastructure is so unsatisfying) although the ritual, as a way to organize my week and my activities, is still something I enjoy.

    Comment by Steve Portigal 04.27.09 @ 1:26 pm

    Are you familiar with these guys? They’re entirely about a smooth transition from yesterday to tomorrow.

    Comment by Scott Ellington 04.27.09 @ 2:18 pm

    Never heard of them. I didn’t check out any of the content but I love that sexy interface; the way those things bounce when you advance to next is super seductive.

    Comment by Steve Portigal 04.27.09 @ 2:28 pm

    Check out their orientation: Strike captains and activists who’ve come off the picket line to do what they’e in Hollywood to do, but what they’re looking forward to is profoundly different from business-as-usual. Among these folks are the (Chase/Milch/Simon) auteurs of the future of television. And were less than three years from the next round of contract negotiations.

    Comment by Scott Ellington 04.27.09 @ 2:35 pm

    of all the effects this economy has had, one of the most signficant has been to retrigger consumers’ re-assessment of what is a need vs. a want — generally speaking, people are more aware that they really have relatively few needs — as such, answers to the question of the necessity of television (or anything else for that matter) must take into account consumers’ new mindsets and values — perhaps a more appropriate way to assess the importance of television is to present different pairings of trade-offs of things to keep/do without and assess the relative “necessity”

    Comment by Denise Lee Yohn 04.27.09 @ 6:56 pm

    Having done some ethnographic work on people’s attitudes towards money right now, I’m skeptical as to the honesty of those sort of answers. I think as many have said that cheap is the new chic, and there’s a social norm shifting towards expressing rejection of the previous norms – the big bad old days – but we also heard a pretty strong desire to return to the freedoms and self-indulgence of the past once we talked further; so I’m not sure that you’re going to see the kind of behavior that this survey suggests would naturally follow.

    Comment by Steve Portigal 04.27.09 @ 7:01 pm