World Families Watch Television

James Lull

Since the late 1970s, American communications scholar James Lull has been developing an ethnographic perspective on audience research. Inside Family Viewing collects Lull's major essays, including his initial effort (in 1980), "The social uses of television," to describe and explain how families interpersonally construct their time with television. World Families, edited by Lull for Sage's Communication and Social Values series, is the first collection of qualitative studies to analyze the relationship between television and family life across Western and non-Western cultures. Methods are diverse, but include direct observation and depth interviewing, sometimes combining statistical assessments with observations or interviews. Both books argue for, and demonstrate the productivity of qualitative approaches to the study of audiences, known variously as reception study, or audience ethnography.

In retrospect, it seems remarkable that it took so long for communications researchers to pursue empirically the observation that television is used mostly within the home, and that relationships between audience members and television are embedded in household relations. Inside Family Viewing reviews the emergence of this recent tradition. In a 1988 essay included in both books, Lull argues that McLuhan's insight that mass media are extensions can be modified to theorize much television viewing "as extensions of audience members' most basic and common mental and behavioral orientations, nested and constructed within culturally diverse circumstances" (1990, p. 199). Lull's interest is in participant observation of in-home acts of viewing, which are considered to be socially constructed, because "viewers not only make their own interpretations of shows, they also construct the situations in which viewing takes place and the ways in which acts of viewing, and program content, are put to use at the time of viewing and in subsequent communications activity" (1990, p. 148).

World Families includes essays, all written or co-written by nationals, analysing family life with television within Britain, Venezuela, West Germany, the United States, China (before Tiananmen Square), and rural and urban India. The Indian essays are particularly valuable as they provide portraits of vast cultural differences from within the observed households, and evidence of an attention to daily detail often missing from the development and media imperialism literature. Once inside the houshold, gender gaps are visible, and striking global differences between the program preferences of men and women emerge, from China to Venezuela. Men prefer action--sports, adventure, and news--while women prefer dramas--serials, soaps, films, and music/dance/comedy (p. 248). Observation of non-Western cultures also challenges conventional wisdom about audiences. For example, in Britain and the US, research generally confirms that men often control the dial, and thus program selection. In Venezuela the situation differs. A national channel was forced to abandon an attempt to offer prime time programs of greater appeal for male audiences, when women viewers, who control the dial at home, switched to the popular soaps, or telenovelas (p. 254).

Ethnographic audience research has attracted fierce criticism. British scholar James Curran in a 1990 European Journal of Communication article calls it a "new revisionist movement" which is actually a reversion to previous liberal pluralist thinking. The charge is that the new revisionists fail to come to terms with the ideological power and influence of mass media, reject neo-Marxist explanatory frameworks, and reconceptualize the audience as creative and active. Curran concludes that a sea change has occurred in media and cultural studies, which will reshape the field. Lull's two books represent a solid contribution to these debates.