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Screenshots #1: The Television Set is a Case Study on 'Culture Shift.'

Mar 01, 2023

Television's explosion in ownership since 1948 shows that cultural shifts in consumer behavior go beyond just market demand. It also requires infrastructures and tailwinds for consumer adoption. Building and investing in products requires consideration of these factors, not just a pressing need for a solution to a problem.

screenshot of a notes page with text that read: "the television set is a case study on “culture shift.” television ownership exploded since 1948, and even today, i think the tv is still the medium or platform with the highest penetration among american households. hindsight makes it seem like the adoption of tv was inevitable — a simple purchase of a utopian “pleasure machine” driven by market demand. however, popular discourse reminds us that the tv had to overcome numerous challenges in pioneering a new category in its early years. this goes to show that for those building/investing in products changing consumer behavior, the correct timing of a culture shift goes far beyond the simple consideration of whether or not there is a pressing “need” for a solution to a problem. but perhaps more importantly, what other infrastructures and tailwinds are in place, both macro and micro, to enable consumer adoption."

In 1948, 1% of US households owned at least one television. This figure grew to 75% by 1955, and 96.7% as of 2011. As a reference point to how unparalleled this figure is, it is estimated that by February 2021, just 85% of U.S. adults owned a smartphone.

Looking back at the age of television, the rise of the TV seemed almost inevitable. The idea of a home TV had been suggested in the press by early media prophets like S.C. Gilfillan in the 1910s, and it was widely discussed in industry trade journals since the 1920s. The technology made meaningful improvements and were ready for mass adoption by the 1930s, and the post-war boom fueled economic growth and disposable income spend on consumer goods in the 1940s. There was even government intervention when the Federal Communications Commission set technical standards for broadcasting and allocated frequencies for television stations.

But as late as 1939, Gallup polls revealed that only 13% of the general public would consider purchasing a television set for their homes. People struggled with decisions as micro as interior decor (in its status as furniture, the TV was/is ugly), to grappling with more macro conflicts like changing attitudes toward privacy, surveillance, gender roles, etc.

Lynn Spiegel, a Professor of Screen Cultures at the School of Communication at Northwestern University, uses early TV programming and home & lifestyle magazines to illustrate some of the potential points of conflict.

Among them, she first observes that while watching TV may have slowly replaced going to the movie theater, “the movie theater was not just a site of exhibition, it was also an arena in which the housewife was given access to social life in the public sphere. In 1951, a cartoon called Better Homes and Gardens stated this problem in graphic terms. On his way home, a husband imagines a night of TV viewing while his kitchen-bound wife dreams of a night out at the movies…it seems likely that women were critical of this illusionism [of television’s grand promise]… they recognized the discrepancy between the everyday experience of domestic isolation perpetuated by television, and the imaginary experiences of social integration which television programming constructed.”

She then observes that “although television was often promoted as the great instrument of family togetherness, it was just often depicted as a divisive force.” This was especially true in the case of women, who were typically shown to be isolated from the space in which social functions around the television existed. In 1951, *Amercian Home *showed an open layout living/dining room in which a woman was supposedly accomplishing her housework among a group watching television.

This problem of spatial separation supposedly “gave way to what can be called a corrective cycle of commodity purchases. Typically here, in 1950, Hot-point advertised its dishwasher by claiming that the machine would bring the woman into the living room where she could watch television with her family.”

TV advertisements in women’s home magazines also attempted to negotiate the conflict between women’s domestic isolation and their integration into social life. Visual images included displaying television sets in the context of nights out, and glamorously dressed husbands and wives, almost elevating the TV consumption status to that of theater dates.

Beyond the gender roles commentary, Spiegel observes that perhaps the most practical problem that television was shown to have caused was with interior decor, in its status as furniture. “Here, television was no longer a focal point of the room; rather it was a technological eyesore, something which threatened to destabilize the unities of interior decor,” she writes, pointing to Women’s magazines of the 1950s writing about ways to conquer the machine, sometimes referring to literally camouflaging the set.

Narrowly secondary to interior decor was surveillance, and “the fear of being seen by the television.” Designs of early television consoles reflected this concern, with cabinet doors that covered screens in entirety. An example of this anxiety was best expressed in 1949 when the *Saturday Evening Post *told its readers, “Be Good! Television’s Watching.” It continued… “Comes now another invasion of your privacy… TV’s prying eye may well record such personal frailties as the errant husband dining with his secretary…” Spiegel writes that “the fear here was that the television camera might record men and women unawares — and have devastating effects upon their romantic lives.” This was among a multitude of other concerns on television’s negative effect on domestic and romantic lives, which we won’t get into here today.

Spiegel concludes that “at least at the level of representation, the installation of the television set was by no means a simple purchase of a pleasure machine. These popular discourses remind us that television’s utopian promise was fraught with doubt.” Perhaps more importantly, they revealed the process through which domestic culture and conventions surrounding television were shaped at home in the early period, and the complicated process of advertisers and programmers reacting to consumer doubt.

I think a lot about television adoption as a framework for culture shifts in consumer behavior, especially as it illustrates that culture shifts are not just psychological changes among consumer demographics, but actually require a vast amount of concrete infrastructures to exist across industries and value chains.

This is especially true for products or services that require a degree of socialization to take shape, or the formation of new domestic cultures. And that is probably a greater percentage of consumer businesses than what most people would intuitively think — it touches upon nearly every consumer vertical that I can think of.

Specifically, “socialization” refers to businesses that impact more than individual consumers, requiring raising awareness or changing a piece of a larger system (even if indirectly). As an example, brands that service a dietary need may exist as part of a larger food categorization and labeling system. While not a specific brand’s responsibility, conventions from grocery store labels, to product packaging or menu layout, to food delivery app UI/UX, all contribute to how easy it is to lead a certain lifestyle. Today, if someone living in the US has an allergy, it’s relatively easy to eliminate the most common allergens in diets. Although, for those who need to manage their gut conditions through a “low-FODMAP” diet, this is much more difficult by magnitudes. Therefore, brands championing a low-FODMAP diet may need to assess the infrastructures in place to support their adoption beyond a market sizing question of whether or not there exists a large enough population of consumers who have a pressing need for low-FODMAP products.

And new “domestic cultures” refers to businesses that change or disrupt routines. The non-alcoholic and THC-infused beverages spaces illustrate this wonderfully, as it attempts to dethrone the alcohol industry, which is deeply entangled with domestic cultures surrounding the way we party and bond with friends, consume sports and music, even influence our experience of coming-of-age and the journey to adulthood, among other things. The introduction of “social” non-alcoholic beverages isn’t as simple as a “replace” function where beer pong is mocktail pong all of a sudden. While it can be at its inception, a successful culture shift to adopting healthier habits may also entail opening the door to day drinking and darties (to party during the day, for my older readers), or morning happy hours and networking events, or more time to take exercise classes on Saturday mornings… who knows what’s possible if hangovers are a thing of the past. But in order for that to happen, the “infrastructure”-related developments that need to exist may include more flexible workplace policies, building new remote-work tools, etc. all of which have nothing to do with non-alcoholic beverages.

While it may seem like a stretch in logic to some (I do recognize that it’s a textbook case of the slippery slope fallacy), I also do believe that this is genuinely how cultures and habits organically form.

As it relates to businesses that go after culture shifts, I wouldn’t necessarily identify bigger culture shifts as greater risks. While it may take more work to get there, chances are the risks pay off. It’s more so a conversation about timing and sequencing — What is the correct sequencing of events in the culture shift that your business is building in? Do the infrastructures exist for your product to succeed? What are the recent signals that point to this / what’s different about today that makes this possible now and not before?