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How watching TV became the new status symbol

By David Bauder
Associated Press
TV-Loving Television
Nick Briggs - PBS VIA AP
All the hip people watch Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham on “Downton Abbey.”

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Manjula Stokes has twice sworn off television, once throwing a set off her deck in a fit over an ex-husband’s sports obsession. Now she’s a devotee of programs like “Downton Abbey,” “Mad Men,” “Survivor” and “Masters of Sex.”

The teacher from Santa Cruz, Calif., illustrates a subtle change in society’s attitude toward television. The medium is growing in stature, propelled by both art and technology. More worthy programs are available at a time when viewers are becoming more comfortable setting up their own schedules to watch.

“I feel it’s more like reading a good book,” Stokes said. “The acting is better, the direction is better. I think it’s more serious as an art form.”

A CBS survey of 700 people in the U.S. with Internet and television connections last year found that 28 percent said they’re watching more television than they did a year ago. Seventeen percent say they’re watching less, with the remainder indicating their habits are unchanged.

That may not seem like much, but there’s a long history of people saying they are watching, or plan to watch, less TV – even as Nielsen measurements proved the opposite is true.

In other words, liking television is becoming more socially acceptable.

“You can go to a sophisticated party in New York City now and people will be talking about television programming, not the latest art film or the latest play,” said David Poltrack, CBS’ veteran chief researcher. “You can go to a bar in a lower socio-economic neighborhood and they’ll be talking about television. They may be talking about different programs, but they’ll be talking about television.”

A push for quality

Now, for every award-winning drama there’s a series about botched plastic surgeries, naked dating or Kardashians. More than one, truthfully. But the push among cable networks during the past decade to make their own original series has significantly increased the number of quality programs.

For years, polls uncovered a certain shameful attitude toward watching television.

When asked in 2000 how much time they spent watching TV the previous day, 84 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center it was less than four hours. That didn’t jibe with the Nielsen company’s finding that the average American that year watched four hours, 15 minutes of television a day.

A Gallup poll in 1990 found 49 percent of people said they spent too much time watching television. Only 19 percent said they watched too little. Nine years ago when CBS began its annual survey, more people said they were cutting back on TV time.

This year, Nielsen estimates the average American watches four hours, 50 minutes of TV a day.

“I think the quality is better,” said Yael Chanoff, a 25-year-old writer from San Francisco. She’s a fan of smart comedies like NBC’s “Parks & Recreation.” Many older shows Chanoff has seen, even hits like “Friends,” strike her as cliché-ridden.

Some better shows now have an attention to detail that reminds Stokes, who is 59, of work done by the MGM movie studio during the last century.

No schedule to watch

Cory Phare, a 33-year-old academic conference director from Denver, said he grew up watching a lot of television but drifted away. The ability to binge on well-written dramas like “Breaking Bad,” “The Americans” and “Dexter” through Netflix drew him back in. He just finished going back to watch the entire run of “The West Wing.”

“Even when I’m on a lunch break, I pull it up on my smartphone,” he said.

That’s another key to television’s resurgence. Viewers no longer depend on prime-time schedules set up in Hollywood boardrooms; they don’t even have to depend on television. Stokes, Chanoff and Phare all consider themselves fans of modern-day TV, and none of them have cable or satellite subscriptions.

“My friends all watch it on computer,” Chanoff said.

Television continues on firm footing financially, despite the rise of digital video outlets like Netflix and YouTube. The research firm eMarketer predicted TV ad spending will hit $78.6 billion in 2018, up from $66.4 billion last year.

No cord-cutting impact

Fears of so-called “cord-cutting,” where people drop their TV subscriptions and rely on online video services, was “surprisingly benign” in the second quarter, with just 305,000 households – less than one-tenth of a percent – quitting pay TV, according to financial advisory firm MoffettNathanson.

The days of needing to choose between two good programs airing at the same time are gone. The downside for networks is that it’s harder for less-established shows to catch on because some nights more people are watching DVR playbacks than any individual show on a network.

That’s a problem for another day. The first priority is getting people interested in what television has to offer.

“Really, television is now more than ever at the center of culture,” Poltrack said.

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