Americans consume more media, sit more

A recent study shows Americans are sitting more and connects this to increased media usage:

That’s what Yin Cao and an international group of colleagues wanted to find out in their latest study published in JAMA. While studies on sitting behavior in specific groups of people — such as children or working adults with desk jobs — have recorded how sedentary people are, there is little data on how drastically sitting habits have changed over time. “We don’t know how these patterns have or have not changed in the past 15 years,” says Cao, an assistant professor in public health sciences at the Washington University School of Medicine.

The researchers used data collected from 2001 to 2016 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which asked a representative sample of Americans ages five and older how many hours they spent watching TV or videos daily in the past month, and how many hours they spent using a computer outside of work or school. The team analyzed responses from nearly 52,000 people and also calculated trends in the total time people spent sitting from 2007 to 2016. Overall, teens and adults in 2016 spent an average of an hour more each day sitting than they did in 2007. And most people devoted that time parked in front of the TV or videos: in 2016, about 62% of children ages five to 11 spent two or more hours watching TV or videos every day, while 59% of teens and 65% of adults did so. Across all age groups, people also spent more time in 2016 using computers when they were not at work or school compared to 2003. This type of screen time increased from 43% to 56% among children, from 53% to 57% among adolescents and from 29% to 50% among adults…

The increase in total sitting time is likely largely driven by the surge in time spent in front of a computer. As eye-opening as the trend data are, they may even underestimate the amount of time Americans spend sedentary, since the questions did not specifically address time spent on smartphones. While some of this time might have been captured by the data on time spent watching TV or videos, most people spend additional time browsing social media and interacting with friends via texts and video chats — much of it while sitting.

Does this mean the Holy Grail of media is screentime that requires standing and/or walking around to avoid sitting too much? Imagine a device that requires some movement to work. This does not have to be a pedal powered gaming console or smartphone but perhaps just a smartphone that needs to move 100 feet every five minutes to continue. (Then imagine the workarounds, such as motorized scooter while watching a screen a la Wall-E.)

Of course, the answer might be to just consume less media content on screens. This might prove difficult. Nielsen reports American adults consume 11 hours of media a day. Even as critics have assailed television, films, and Internet and social media content, Americans still choose (and are pushed as well) to watch more.

American men have 30 minutes of more leisure time a day and use half of it to watch TV

Sociologist Liana Sayer tracks the leisure time of Americans by gender, finds a half hour gap between men and women (5 hours and 30 minutes versus 4 hours and 59 minutes), and looks at how men spend that extra time:

What are men doing with that extra half hour? Some of it is spent socializing, exercising, and simply relaxing, among other things. But “about half of the gap is from TV,” says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the school’s Time Use Laboratory…

Sayer, in a 2016 paper, called American time use “stubbornly gendered”: On average, women continue to devote more time each day to chores and looking after children than men do. Further, the average American woman spends 28 more minutes a day than the average American man on “personal care”—a time-use category that encompasses activities such as showering, getting dressed, and applying makeup…

Sayer laid out two possible theories. The first: “The idea is that men are able to watch more television, perhaps because they enjoy it, and the reason men are able to exercise greater preference in their time use choices is because they have [more] power than women,” she has written

The second theory has to do with the ranks of men who have become more socially isolated, whether because they’re out of work, less involved in family life, or both. Women, in addition to working more than they used to, tend to have stronger networks of friends and are more likely to raise children as single parents—which together could make women more socially connected than men. Thus, as Sayer has written, “men may devote a greater share and more time to television because this type of leisure does not require social integration.”

Television continues to have an outsized pull on the leisure time of Americans. This could change over time and the options for leisure seem to have exploded in recent decades, but even younger Americans seem drawn to television, just in through different means such as watching on phones or computers. I wonder for how many Americans television is the default leisure activity when they have no other other or limited leisure options.

I’m sure others have explored this but these time use findings would be interesting to connect to what it means to be a man in the United States: you watch a certain amount of television. Does it matter more what men watch (sports, action shows, etc.) or how much they watch? What cultural expectations do they pick up regarding how much television to watch and how exactly is this passed down?

 

 

Trading Spaces avoided McMansions

Washington Post review of the new Trading Spaces emphasizes the smaller spaces the show worked with:

Though it was technically impossible to indict the cable channels — especially HGTV — for their role in the quick-mortgage fantasia, the connections were plain to see: the schedule was (and still is) littered with shows that spur house envy, encouraging viewers to live in a constant state of renovation, makeover and upgrade. Homeownership became the highest expression of citizenship, while decor became the chief signifier of class. “Trading Spaces,” which premiered in 2000, helped ignite that craze, making it safe to waste entire Saturday afternoons watching home-improvement shows. Yet it hardly deserves all (or any) of the blame.

The show returns Saturday (with a long reunion special preceding it), essentially unchanged and contagiously giddy, full of its usual surprises and reveals. Looking at the first of eight new episodes, one is reminded of “Trading Space’s” conceptual purity: It never goaded anyone into ditching their old house for an open-floor-plan, granite-countertop McMansion beyond their means. Its core principles were to work with what you have, on a restrained budget. It preached a DIY ethic, asking couples to swap houses and redo a room, aided (some would say strong-armed) by a crafty professional designer and carpenter.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. The scale of renovation on Trading Spaces is much more doable for the average American homeowner compared to the whole house makeovers on many other shows. How many people have the budget to do multiple rooms, particularly creating all new kitchens or master bathrooms? Or, who has the time to hand over their house for weeks as opposed to doing renovations over a weekend?
  2. The rooms on Trading Spaces tend to be much more varied than the typical home shows that often emphasize an expansive kitchen and open concept first floor. The HGTV shows encourage a homogenous style, moving from stainless steel appliances and granite countertops to shiplap, white cabinets, and open shelving.  American homes tend to be unique inside, particularly in certain rooms where people to have eclectic styles and uses.
  3. While the review above does not blame Trading Spaces for the larger shows to come, once you on television continue (1) glorifying the single-family home as the expression of individual tastes (a long-standing American tradition) plus (2) suggesting that people should be renovating their homes (part of the shift from living in homes to seeing homes as investments), is it a slippery slope to large-scale renovations in big houses?

On the whole, there is a lot that could be said from the move from Bob Villa to Trading Spaces to House Hunters and Property Brothers alongside shifts in American housing. Of course, it is hard to make causal arguments about how watching these shows directly changes behaviors.

Do suburbanites watch screeds about suburbia?

I recently read a review of a new documentary that addresses the housing issues and racism of the American suburbs. This led me to a question: do Americans in a largely suburban country watch films that directly criticize the suburbs?

I made a list of the first movies that came to mind as being known for their critique of suburban life. I have also included their box office earnings:

American Beauty – 1999 – $356 million

Far From Heaven – 2002 – $29 million

Pleasantville – 1998 – $49 million

Revolutionary Road – 2008 – $75 million

Stepford Wives – 1975 and 2004 – $4 million, $102 million

This is not an exhaustive list at all though it does quickly become tricky to determine whether a film is truly about suburbia and its way of life or the plot is simply set there.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. There is clearly an audience for such films. Not all of them were blockbusters but they made decent money.
  2. Some more data would be useful such as how much money was made on each film and how these box office figures compare to other films of their time.

Based on the research I have done on suburban-set popular television shows, I would guess television shows that try to critique suburbia do not tend to be popular.

 

 

Experimenting with shorter TV commercials

Shorter commercials are on the rise:

Commercials of non-traditional lengths have been increasing. Almost 6% of all commercials aren’t 10-, 15-, 30-, or 60-seconds long during the first half of 2017, according to Nielsen’s 2017 Commercial & Advertising Update…

On TV, Fox debuted the first six-second ads earlier this year at the Teen Choice Awards for reportedly $75,000 each. Online, social giants like Facebook and Snapchat are commissioning research that touts the effectiveness of ads in the first two seconds.

I am trying to think of whether long commercials – whether in the 30 second format or 60 second format – hold my attention more than a series of 6 second commercials could. Not a whole lot can be communicated in six seconds but perhaps the mind is fresher when it is consistently seeing new pitches. Now, imagine a 2 minute commercial break broken into at least 8 commercials of 15 seconds. Or, a shorter break of 1 minute split into 10 six second commercials. The contrasts could get pretty interesting.

The unreality of coffee cups on TV

A communications professor provides a reminder of the physical unreality of television:

There are moments when the “realism” of television breaks down: when framed photographs are poorly photoshopped, when video chats are unrealistically high-quality, and when driving scenes are staged using some very obvious rear projection. But for me the biggest threat to realism on television is something you may never have considered: the way that coffee cups that are supposedly full of coffee are plainly empty.

This video attempts to better understand both why this happens and why it bothers me as much as it does. My hope is it can help solve my problem, whether we define that problem as the emptiness of the cups (please support this cause on social media by using #EmptyCupAwards hashtag) or my own obsession with them.

This is just a small example of how television can warp our sense of reality. Even if we watch with a critical eye, television and film provides a complete universe that looks realistic (unless the presentation is emphasizing the lack of realism) but contains all sorts of weird phenomenon. In addition to the empty coffee cups, let me provide a few other examples from my own life:

  1. For a long time, I had a hard time believing that shootings and murders could happen in broad daylight. On the screen, they tend to happen when it is dark or stormy, situations that might be befitting of violent action.
  2. The full geographic scope of communities on television is often skewed – much sitcom actions takes place in a single house or in just a few locations. A show like The Simpsons set in Springfield tends to add parts to the city to suit its needs; Springfield includes these areas: “The city is divided into a number of districts, including Skid Row, the Lower East Side (a Jewish neighborhood), Springfield Heights, Bum Town, East Springfield, Recluse Ranch Estates, Junkieville, Pressboard Estates, South Street Squidport, Little Newark, Crackton, a Russian District, West Springfield, Tibet Town, Waverly Hills, Sprooklyn, Little Italy, and a gay district.”
  3. I have toured several sets in Hollywood and now I can spot them in various places. For example, the Warner Brothers lot has a city setup that is in all sorts of commercials and television shows. Or, we saw Wisteria Lane which could pop up in an Ace Hardware commercial (with some modifications).

The real issue here isn’t the missing coffee; it is that most of the time it is clear whether TV is presenting a more real or less real depiction yet almost all the time it is in small ways defying embodied life.

Making housing activism attractive on-screen

Fighting housing issues may be necessary but it is probably not the first topic viewers, producers, and networks think of for a good product. Until Show Me A Hero:

At its heart, Show Me a Hero is a wonk procedural, exploring all the seemingly impossible and impassable hurdles that policy has to traverse to become reality. But it’s brought to life by Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the titular hero. In 1987, when the show begins, Nick, a former cop and lawyer, and current Springsteen superfan, is an eager and ambitious new member of the Yonkers City Council, which is already being roiled by a court ruling. A long-gestating lawsuit has finally found Yonkers, a working-class city just north of the New York City border, guilty of intentionally segregating its housing. The judge presiding over the case has ruled that 200 units of low-income housing must be built on the east, and white, side of the city. That is, more precisely, 200 units of housing, to be spread out over eight different locations, in the white part of a city of a couple hundred thousand people that has spent 40 years practicing systematic housing discrimination and segregation. That is, also, 200 units of housing greeted by white homeowners as an existential threat to their property values and way of life, visited upon them by liberal outsiders, to be fought viciously and rancorously, lest any of the “public housing people” come to live next door.

Nick is soon tapped to run against the Republican mayor in what is supposed to be a slam-dunk election for the incumbent but turns into an upset when the virulently anti-housing voters elect Nick simply because he is not the mayor, who has assented to the judge’s ruling in the case. Nick is happily swept into power by an incensed and racist cohort who expects Nick to fight the housing order, even though it is legal and will never be overturned, and disobeying it will bankrupt the city. Nick is not a simple, straightforward hero: He doesn’t come into office intent on doing the right thing, damn the consequences. He’s a cocky kid, tickled to be the county’s youngest big city mayor, who has to choose between being reasonable, responsible, and righteous or a recalcitrant, unrealistic bigot—when it is the latter choice that will let him keep his job. Nick does what is right. How he does this, and at what personal and professional expense, is the meat of Show Me a Hero, which, tellingly, gets its title from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” (A piece of advice: Don’t Wikipedia Nick Wasicsko if you want to avoid spoilers.)

Plenty of critics and viewers have echoed Newton Minnow’s claim that television will become a “vast wasteland” when it is bad. Yet, couldn’t a show like this be entertaining and provide a public good?

While I noted above that housing activism is an unlikely television topic, it is also an underdiscussed topic overall as many prefer to talk about the promises (and occasional perils, particularly after 2006) of the housing market without acknowledging the influence of residential segregation and the need for interventions to make affordable housing possible as well as to break down persistent clusters by race and class.