The Electronic Hearth

We begin with a quotation from Cecelia Tichi's Electronic Hearth: Creating An American Television Culture

Network television featured the new electronic hearth all winter long, Monday through Friday of 1989-1991 when the studio set of ABC's Good Morning America was constructed to resemble a living room with a crackling fire and a cracking big‑screen monitor. Viewers saw both the open‑fire hearth and the adjacent big color TV on which the host and hostess, Joan London and Charles Gibson (as some have noticed, surrogate parents), conducted inter­views by electronic hookup.  

The television was not pushed up against the fireplace to save room in a crowded studio. The hearth and the color monitor were strategically positioned side by side to convey a distinct message. Viewers were asked to grasp and to accept the analogy of the hearth with the television, and in turn to associate their own TV sets with a glowing hearth.  

Any toddler could distinguish the television from the fireplace, of course, but ABC's conflation of the two objects intentionally makes it impossible to separate the implied meanings of the one from the other. On the contrary, it serves the interests of the network and its advertisers to blur the lines between them and make distinctions of meaning impossible. By design, Good Morning America viewers are to see the two objects television and hearth as inter­changeable. The two are presented as analogues. More than that, they are past and present forms of each other, and all the meanings contained in the hearth are intended to transfer to the TV receiver. All the historically accumulated associations of the American domestic hearth are reproduced in the television.  

The family is the basic social unit in most human societies throughout history.  Its first and foremost function is pro-creation, which would not require any social relationship deeper than a single encounter.  But when the issues of protection and nurturing of the young, inheritance rights and support of the elderly arise, a tighter set of familial bonds is required.  A social unit is more cohesive by the physical proximity of its members and their constant interaction among them.  In medieval times, families organize their activities around the hearth (or fireplace) to work, eat, drink, talk and sing.  In modern times, the radio and later the television  in the living room became the electronic hearth around which the family organize their leisure time.  More recently, as consumer electronics have become broadly common in households, the electronic hearth seems to have broken up as family members living under the same roof prefer to watch television or play video games on the television sets in their own rooms.

This article serves to document the distribution of television sets by locations within households.  The data are derived from the TGI Mexico survey.  This is a survey of 6,200 homes in Mexico conducted during the first half of 2002.  Within this sample, 99.3% of households own one or more television sets.  In the next chart, we show the frequency distribution of the number of television sets in the television households.  At this moment in time, the majority of households owns more than one television set.

To being with, we will look at the single-set households, which represents 43% of all households.  This is a simple situation, because the only issue is the location of that single set.  In the next chart, we show the frequency distribution of the location of that single television set.  In 69% of the single set homes, the television set is in the living room, with another 4% being in the dining room.  The other major option (26% of the cases) is in an adult bedroom.  While the physical distribution is simple to describe, the social consequences are highly significant.  When there is one television set which can exhibit only one channel on the screen, that program selection becomes the nexus of the interplay of power relationships of spouses, parent-child, male-female and siblings.  Will the father get to watch soccer?  Will the mother get to watch the telenovela?  Will the child get to watch cartoons?  Will there be a détente in the allocation of control by time of day, or will it be a total dictatorship?  And whatever the choice may be, will the rest of the family slither away in disgust and ripping the fabric of the family structure?  Often, persistent arguments and conflicts lead to an increasingly cheap solution --- buy another television set! and thereby created isolated human beings each burrowed in their own rooms watching their preferred television programs.

The situation is more complicated in the two-set homes, which represents 37% of all households.  We asked the survey respondent to identify the primary set as the one with the most amount of television viewing done by the household, and the other set then becomes the secondary set.  In the next two charts, we show the frequency distributions of the locations of the primary and secondary television sets in two-set households.  The primary set is in the living room in the majority of cases, and the secondary set is in an adult bedroom in the preponderance of cases.


Even more complicated is the situation of the three-set households, which represents 14% of all households.  In the next three charts, we show the distribution of the primary, secondary and tertiary sets in these households.  In the majority of cases, the primary set is located in the living room.  The secondary and tertiary sets are most likely to be found in adult bedrooms.  In the interesting case of children bedroom, the distribution is 1.6%, 4.5% and 16.7% for the primary, secondary and tertiary sets.  At this moment in time, it is still rare (less than 25% of three-set households) for a child to have a television set in his/her own room for their own use.  This means that much of children's television viewing takes place in the living/dining room, possibly in the company of adults.


And we end with another quotation from Cecelia Tichi's Electronic Hearth: Creating An American Television Culture

The Good Morning America studio set reminds us that technologies can be bearers of ideological values carried forward from the past into the present. The reverse is often argued, that new technologies enter the culture in interven­tionist, disruptive ways, and are, therefore, socioculturally discontinuous. Yet, these same technologies are presented to consumers literally in terms of the past, of what is familiar in function and meaning. (The horseless carriage preceded the automobile, and still, after a century, we measure the engine's energy output in equine terms.) Technology can be disseminated with its value system intact, bringing ideology forward, assuring the public of cultural continuity, conveying the message that there is no fundamental change, that history itself is a fiction.  

The TV hearth makes a good case study, showing the extent to which the TV environment is laden with values and traditions that carry forward from a preceding period. Equally important, to notice the meanings embedded in the hearth from colonial America to the television age is to see that certain interests are served by pressing an ideological program centered on patriotism and domestic security. The hearth may seem politically neutral, a primitive heating system long superseded by closed stoves and furnaces and, in the age of central heat, sustained in architectural decorative arts. But, in fact, the American open fireplace is freighted with carefully inculcated meanings adhering through the processes of history and strategically deployed by corporate and media interests in the TV receiver. We err if we fail to disclose them and to consider why it is that TV viewers have been encouraged to experience the cathode tube as an electronic hearth.  

(posted by Roland Soong, 7/18/2002)

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