Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

What Children Watch When They Watch TV: Putting Theory into Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

What Children Watch When They Watch TV: Putting Theory into Practice

Article excerpt

Children aged four to 12 influence over $165 billion in spending in the U.S. (McGee, 1997) and six- to 12-year-olds directly purchase $24.4 billion worth of merchandise each year (McNeal, 1998). Television provides the bulk of the advertising for that merchandise (Robinson & Bianchi, 1997), resulting in a newly burgeoning body of children's programming. Nickelodeon, promoted as "the only cable network for kids" when it began its commercial-free operation in 1979 (Harp, 1993, p. 150), accepted advertising in 1984 and purchased the rights to the entire Children's Television Workshop library for $75 million in 1998 (Stern, 1998). PBS initiated its own multi-million dollar campaign in 1994 in an effort to expand its children's programming offerings and its audience (McClellan, 1993). Upon its inception in 1995, the WB television network launched a children's programming block in its weekday and weekend schedule (Tobenkin, 1994) and, in 1999, the new United Paramount Network began airing two hours of Disney-originated children's programming six days a week ("UPN and Buena Vista Television Join Forces," 1998).

Because of the highly competitive children's television landscape, new series failures have doubled in the last decade and the rate of cancellation of existing programs has significantly increased (Adams, Eastman, & Levine, 1993; Carter, 1994). The tendency of young viewers to habitually watch programs on the same channels (channel loyalty), especially between adjacent programs (inheritance effects), and repeat viewing across different episodes of the same program (duplication of viewing) has also eroded (Coe, 1994). This has the TV industry worried (see, for example, "Children's TV Ad Spending in a Slump," 1994; "Toy Marketers Still Look to Hollywood," 1998). It is left relatively "clueless as to what it is that the [young] televiewing audience is looking for" (Shales, 1994, p. 34) and how to go about providing it.

Uses and Gratifications Research

Concurrent with the industry's efforts to cater to what appears to be highly unpredictable viewing behavior, researchers grounded in uses and gratifications theory have been systematically attempting to explain what governs viewer choice, viewing patterns, and audience interpretations of program content. Uses and gratifications is founded on three basic tenets: (1) viewers are goal directed in their behavior; (2) they are active media users; and (3) they are aware of their needs and select media to gratify these needs (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). Children have been found to be a distinctive segment of the viewing audience, displaying characteristic viewing activities-but similar reasons for watching-compared to adult viewers (Greenberg, 1974; Lin, 1993; Rubin, 1977; 1979). Indeed, Rubin (1981, p. 157) discovered rather consistent negative associations between the age and viewing motivation variables in the literature and found age to be "a less consistent predictor of most viewing motivations" for children and adolescents.

In recent years, researchers have tried to weave these observations into broad-based theoretical frameworks that can, according to Swanson (1987, p. 237), "integrate and account for much of the received wisdom about audiences and effects of mass communication." In doing so, they have identified two primary types of television viewing: ritualized (habitual use of television for diversionary reasons) and instrumental (goal-oriented use of television to gratify various needs or motives) (see Abelman, 1987; Babrow, 1987; Houlberg, 1984; Rubin, Rubin, Perse, Armstrong, McHugh, & Faix, 1986). Unfortunately, these general concepts have not as yet lent themselves to the struggles of the television industry. They provide no information as to what young ritualized and instrumental viewers watch in order to gratify their respective diversionary and informational needs. Indeed, symbiotic investigations--that is, studies that build communication theory and also have direct pragmatic appeal for the professional community-have been few and far between. …

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