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Ethnography on TV Viewing


This report is primarily based on the context of a previous study by Shrum, Wyer Jr and O’guinn on American families in the US. It aims to explore deeper into their idea that television viewing has a major effect on the beliefs, attitudes and perceptions of viewers in America by assessing whether Hispanics are affected in the same way. The report further explores the applicability of this theory on family relationships.

The subjects are categorized in a firm sociological context to facilitate better understanding of the effect of their cultural and ethnic upbringing on the relationship between individuals and their behaviors towards television watching.


A number of studies have been conducted on how the behavior of human beings is affected by television. One of the most prominent studies was conducted by Gerbner and his contemporaries.  They came up with the cultivation theory which suggests that viewers cultivate information from the television by integrating it into their real world. The cultivation theory claims that television presents a twisted version of reality. An analysis of television content has indicated that issues such as affluence, crime and violence marital discord and some occupations such as lawyers, doctors and police officers are frequently shown on television than in the real world. The cultivation theory further suggests that the more people are exposed to the distortion of the real world, the more they tend to view the real world as similar to kind of world that is portrayed on the television and think of the world as similar to the overrepresented entities on television. In the long run, these perceptions can influence both the behavior and attitudes of people. Several studies have supported the cultivation theory. For instance, it has been alleged that heavy television viewing is closely linked to greater prevalence of anxiety, violence, perceived danger and fear. Other studies have indicated that heavy television viewing increases faith in professionals like doctors.


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Information processing theories and observational theories are both designed to demonstrate the mechanisms by which individuals learn various kinds of social information from the television. Generally, these theories allege that people attend to, encode and keep the behavior and information they see and hear in their memory. They then use this information to guide their motivations, interests and actions. Viewing influences the attention and retention processes.

According to Morley and Brunsdon, audiences can independently choose to reject or accept ideologies presented in television shows. The authors state that an event in the television can be encoded in various ways. In addition, they indicate that messages from social communication are usually complex in form and structure and have more than one interpretation. Their research proved that people from different cultural and social backgrounds could have different interpretations of certain information from the television programs. This also proved Shrum’ study which indicated that heavy television viewing could have major effects on the viewers’ social perception.

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Data was collected for a total of 21 hours spread over three weeks. For each of the three weeks, the observer watched and recorded the respondents’ engagement with the television for seven hours. Two groups of different ethnic backgrounds were considered for the study: An African American family and a Hispanic family. Each of the group formed a different case study. The data from each case study was analyzed by comparing their behavioral patterns. This data was then analyzed in comparing with its relationship with the theories of Shrum, Wyer Jr and O’guinn.

The Subject Groups of the Research

African American Group.

The Steven’s family is a middle-class family residing in Los Vegas. The previous generations of the family were raised in Los Vegas like the parents. Steve is 50, his wife Jane is 35, their son Cliff is 20 while their daughter Samantha is 18 years old. Cliff and Samantha are university students; Steve is an IT manager at a local company while Jane is a nurse.

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Hispanic Group.

Abrahan’s family lives in Los Vegas. The parents migrated into the US in 1989 from Barbados and have lived in the US ever since. Their only son Marcus was born and raised in Los Vegas. Abrahan is 44 years, his wife Acacia is 38 while Marcus is 20 years. This is a middle-class family that has acquired the American culture but is still dominated by the Barbados values.

Information was collected by observing the families interaction with the television. Informal interviews were also conducted for further information. Since both families live the state of Navada, it was easy to visit them using a car. The researcher interacted with the families to get the information but advised them to live their normal lives as if she was not around. Some of the information recorded by the observer includes the respondents’ behavior, mannerism, remarks, and frequency of watching television.

On numerous occasions the research would initiate a conversation to understand the thinking and mannerism of the respondents. On other occasions, the researcher would remain quiet and simply observe how the families went about their businesses in relation to television viewing. This method intended to understand the viewers’ impromptu reactions. It was necessary that the research was around to witness the reactions of the respondents. Relying entirely on the interviews and observations would provide a slight insight into the exact effects of television watching. It was therefore necessary that this information was compared with information from previous researchers and other sources of data. The qualitative nature of the study enabled the researcher to get an in-depth evaluation of every respondent; both their constructed interpretation and instinctive responses.  Context analysis technique is allegedly the best data analysis technique. This was the same technique used for the study to ensure that the observations were reliable. It requires that the researcher’s observations are disciplined by creating formal categories in a way that the information recorded could be well organized.

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Observational notes were recorded on a different log sheet every time the researcher visited the homes. The groups were further divided into age groups for clear analysis. The observations were further broken down to indicate the genre and content of the television program the respondents were watching as well as the over uses of the television.


I reviewed the data collected from the research observations and came up with various patterns and themes. They include:

  • The generation Y watched sports and music related programs 60% of their time.
  • Hispanic children were more conscious about the kind of program they watched than the African American family. In most cases they quickly switched off the television when parents appeared unlike the African Americans who opted to choose a different television to watch their preferred programs with no fear.
  • The Hispanic group watched TV together as one family while the African American group never did: Every time parents watched a different station from children.
  • Both groups watched movies on DVD for at least 25% of their viewing time.

Analysis and Discussion

The findings of this study provide various insights into the TV interaction patterns among the two groups. Generally, they support the cultivation theory that implies that television watching presents different perceptions of the real world. Moreover an analysis of the data provides various patterns that support various existing theories and also introduces new ideas that necessitate further research. The most common pattern in both groups was the frequency of television watching. Both groups spend most of their time at home watching television. On various occasions, the television was switched on even when the families were doing something else. This indicates the centrality of television watching in the families. The African American family left the television on for over three quarters of the day. In some instances, the television was on but no one was watching it. From the observation notes of October 12, the Steven family had two televisions switched on but only the one in the dining room was frequently watched. The television in the sitting room mostly provided background sound as the family members went on with their daily chores. The situation was quite different with the Abrahan’s family where the television was only switched on when someone was actually watching it. In fact, marcus switched his bedroom television off when parents knocked the door and pretended to be reading.

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According to Shrum, Wyer Jr and O’guinn, American families watch too much television. The authors state that an average American families watches television for at least seven hours in a day while the average individuals only watch TV for about four hours in a day. This has made the TV the most watched family product in the country. Although most marketers believe that most television programs are nothing more than delivery vehicles of products to the audience, research suggests that consumption of television might have negative effects to the viewers. For instance Sprafkin, Gadow and Abelma assert new behaviors could be learnt by just observing other individuals interact. Since most television programs involve social interactions, it could play a very significant role in shaping individual’s social behavior.

The greatest concern for most researchers has been the negative implications of television viewing. Most television programs are dominated by aggression themes that are considered very detrimental on the behavior of human beings, especially for the children. Similarly, television programs could have beneficial influences on the development of individuals. In the Hispanic family, Marcus was very careful with his interaction with the television. This is evident with the idea that he was playing some video game but quickly switched it off when his door was knocked. It could also imply that parental influence affects the frequency of television viewing by the children. In the African American family, Cliff and Samantha were not bothered with whatever their parents were doing. They concentrated on their programs with very little interruptions from the family. It could be concluded that parents in the American families were not bothered with the kind of programs their children watched.

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This supports the findings of Morley’ study that indicates that television viewing has a major disruptive effect on family relationships and household routines. It creates an impression that television viewing is disruptive to the family relationships. In the entire research period, Cliff spent his free time watching either music or some sports shows. There was no time he took part in other household chores like cooking or cleaning the house. His sister Samantha was the only one who helped in cooking. However, Morley suggest that instead of looking at television viewing as disruptive, we could also consider it to provide different schedules for family members to gather and interact. He suggest that family members drink and eat while watching the television and engage in informal talks that could either be related or not to the content of the program on air. For instance, Marcus ensured that his room was clean before watching television. At one point he even watched the discovery channel with his parents. This is a program that could be considered to be more educational than the music and football shows that Cliff watched. Marcus’ relationship with his parents was closer than that of Cliff and his parents. Marcus supports the idea that watching television together with other family members gives them a chance to bond and share ideas about their daily events.

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Marcus was more knowledgeable in current affairs than Cliff. For instance, he was updated on the ongoing events in Libya. Cliff on the other hand was never bothered with such events and he considered them to be irrelevant. As a matter of fact, when his father watched CNN news, he preferred to go to the dining room to watch sport shows or music on MTV. In addition, on very rare occasion did he talk to his father because most of the time, they were in different rooms. According to Biagi, individual relationships have major effects on the decisions made by individuals than television programs. In his study on the effects of media on voters’ decisions, he argues that only a small percentage of voters were converted by media advertisements. This is apparent in the observation notes of October 26 which indicate that Marcus watched the ‘house’, television series but was more interest in political matters and current affairs than medical issues. The author also alleges that people are the major sources of information. This is evident from the Hispanic family where as much as all family members worked in different fields; they were relatively updated on most current issues because of the discussions they had while watching the discovery channel.


 According to Bryant, there has been very little research conducted on the control of the television by family members. Most of the research has mainly focused on the frequency of television watching. This study has demonstrated that unlike in families where there is only one television for the entire family, most families have different televisions and members could decide whether to watch together or on different television sets. However, there is need to carry out more research on issues such as the influence of advances sources of information such as the internet and personal relationships with peers and age mates on the kind of programs watched by individuals 



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