In the early nineties, researchers predicted that at the current rate of growth, there would be two televisions per US household by 1995. It's probably safe to say that we have likely exceeded that prediction. While our smart phones, tablets, and laptops may have a prominent place in our lives, they haven't quite replaced our televisions. Once rooted in our living rooms or family rooms, the television has moved into our bedrooms, kitchens, and even bathrooms. They've gotten slimmer and more portable. But as they've changed, has our relationship with them has changed as well?

We only added a second television to our home in the last year, following the purchase of a newer model. While turning on the television is usually the last thing I do when I get home, S prefers to have the company it offers. The one in the living room is typically on in the background throughout the day when we're home. (Our differing relationship with television means, at the very least, that we rarely disagree on what to watch.) Our older set sat in "storage" in the basement for about a year while we debated whether we'd turn the space into a recreation area. Since we're renting it's too much of an investment, so the second set found its way into our bedroom. While this seems to be a common theme in television-usage and ownership, S and are behind the curve. According to stats from Nielsen (2009), the average American home has 2.86 television sets. In 1990, the average was 2.0, while in 1975, it was 1.57. Clearly, the viewing public has regarded television ownership as something to aspire to.

In the US, the average American family's television set is on for about 6 hours per day—taking about 40% of an individual's free time on a daily basis. In a cross cultural study conducted in the 1980s, anthropologist Susan Kent looked at television viewing habits among Navajo, Spanish-American, and Euro-American families. She found that regardless of ethnic group there were little to no limitations placed on television viewing. In one household, the television was turned on in the morning and left on throughout the day—whether or not there was an active viewer—until the last person went to bed. In another household all activities were carried out within the proximity of the television: eating, folding clothes, doing homework, reading, and playing occurred in the living room so that family members could watch television, or at least be close to the box. When friends came to visit, television viewing became a focal point for entertaining. This is a fairly consistent pattern as, generally, once television is introduced into a family or community, it's used in the same way: it becomes the center of activity.

Kent found a primary effect of television viewing is that it reduces the variety of activities people might otherwise pursue by limiting them to activities that they can complete near to the television set. For example, among the Navajo who had no television, people were more likely to engage in family discussions, butchering, weaving baskets and blankets, making necklaces, and playing with children. Once a television was accessible, these activities declined, as did the variety of places in which these activities occurred when they did happen. In a Spanish-American household this pattern was also observed when the television was broken: family members performed a greater diversity of activities in a multitude of locations when their access to television was limited, but once the set was repaired, this diversity was decreased and was limited to the space in which the television was located.

One of the biggest changes from the 1980s to present day is our commitment to the place where we watch television. And that began when the television moved out of our living rooms and into secondary places in our home. During the 1950s to the 1980s, the initial phase of television adoption, the viewer experience was one of scarcity. Choice was limited to a few channels and programs. Cable and television introduced an era of plenty—more channels and more programs. As these choices expanded, the perceived necessity for multiple viewing options grew. Now you could watch cooking programs while you cooked (or not miss out on your favorite programs while preparing meals), and the kids could watch their own programs in their rooms, freeing the main space for more adult-oriented shows. Television became more individualized as it spread throughout our homes, but it still held our attention. So instead of doing less in the proximity of others, we were now doing less beyond the company of the group.

Still, at its core, this shift was meant to enable us to gain greater control over our television viewing experiences. And this is momentum that has fueled the rise of devices like the Slingbox and DVRs. Long before smartphones and Internet viewing options, we were looking for ways to shift time and place to match our needs. The second television, when it existed in the home, was a luxury for this reason: it gave viewers an option as to what they watched and where they watched it.

Today, fewer Americans consider television to be a necessity, but they're still buying them. Consumers may know about the conveniences offered by apps that stream programs to their mobile devices or computers, but old habits are hard to break. It seems the older you are, the more likely you are to own a television. It may be that the costs associated with viewing programs on a computer or mobile device require more management from the viewer, including subscriptions and potential additional fees for those subscriptions on top of your cellular phone or Internet bill. In comparison, the television may seem to be a more consistent financial option: you purchase a package, you get a variety of channels, and all you need to do is pay your monthly bill. Additionally, slimmer, less expensive technology with increased social connectivity have made televisions more accessible than ever. They can be fit into a greater variety of spaces—even if you aren't installing multiple sets in your home, this means you can find a set to fit your space requirements.

But there's something else: owning a television carries with it a certain degree of status. People share stories about whose family was the first to have a set, and then a color set, on the block during the technology's infancy. It was an important social marker. And it still is. We might not all aspire to have televisions in our bathrooms, but having that second set, if it's possible, does offer us a degree of freedom and choice. And having a set at all provides a central point to gather at home with family and friends—something that's not quite so easy to accomplish around a smartphone or tablet.

While our television viewing options may be changing, they've been driven by our desire to shift time and space to support our viewing needs. But television still holds us captive—demanding a portion of our attention that could be directed elsewhere.



  • Adams, Paul C (1992). Television as Gathering Place. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(1): 117-135.

  • Katz, Elihu (2009). The End of Television? Its Impact on the World (So Far). Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: 6-18.

  • Kent, Susan (1985). The Effects of Television Viewing: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cultural Anthropology 26(1): 121-126.

  • Martins, Susana (2005). White Noise and Everyday Technologies. American Studies 46(1): 87-113.

  • Smith, Anthony (1978): Just a Pleasant Way to Spend an Evening: The Softening Embrace of American Television. Daedalus 107(1): 195-212.


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