The kids in our house are making a public comeback. They are surfacing from the private recesses of the house out into the more communal space of the family lounge room. After years of being holed-up in their bedrooms they are back – thanks to pay TV. Foxtel has presented them with a smorgasbord of programs, tempting enough to entice even the most die-hard gamer or teenage recluse out of the bedroom and into the throes of lounge room politics. In some ways, our newly populated lounge room is reminiscent of David Morley’s Family Television with television viewing “situated firmly within the politics of the living room”(19).
This article explores the notion that the introduction of pay TV in Australia challenges the general movement towards an individualisation of media consumption in the family home. Due to pay TV’s limitations of one outlet per household, children and teenagers are leaving the privacies of their own bedrooms and returning to the family lounge room. With this return, many family members are having to relearn the art of sharing (or getting your fair share of) this limited resource. This situation may also be a particularly Australian one, as it seems that pay TV with its multi-channel viewing is more readily available on multiple television sets within homes in other countries (Tidhar, Chava and Nossek 16)
Family television viewing seems to be part of a relatively recent (round the hearth) tradition, which followed from the family piano, phonograph and the radio. These traditions re-established the home and family as a place where parental authority overrode the dangers of the outside world. Radio broadcasters in the 1940s endorsed the family radio as a way to promote family togetherness because (as they saw it) “the house and hearth have [had] been largely given up in favour of a multitude of other interests and activities outside, with the consequent disintegration of family ties and affections” (Lewis qtd. in Flichy 158).
Television viewing followed suit as another round-the-hearth family tradition during the earlier period of domestic television. David Morley (1986) explored the domestic consumption of television in the context of everyday family life during this time, a time when only one television set was available to most families – a time when dads, and the occasional mum, ruled the television viewing habits of the family. Morley’s approach to television viewing was one in which the household (or family) was central to interpreting the television audience; where there were gendered regimes of watching and program choice which often reflected existing power relationships in the home.
Today most Australian families have more than one television set (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), leading the way to more individualised and fragmented modes of television watching within Australian homes. The introduction of computers, the Internet and video consoles in many family homes seems to have further dispersed family members to more private spaces in the family home, diffusing existing conflict surrounding the family television. Therefore, "if television once brought the family together around the hearth, now domestic technologies permit the dispersal of family members to different rooms or different activities within the same space" (Livingstone 128).
The geographical migration of the television set, along with new digital technologies, to the bedrooms and secondary living spaces in many family homes has brought with it new dynamics for social space within the household and a “reciprocal (re)construction of the meanings and functions of both the technological objects and the domestic spaces they inhabit” (Caron 3). Equipping bedrooms with television and digital technologies has the ability to change the room’s conventional usage – both spatially and temporally. In this way our 11-year-old’s bedroom has been transformed into a specialised bedroom culture – a gamer’s paradise. By locating a television and game console in this bedroom the technologies are identified as personal property while at the same time allowing for a space that functions as both communal and private, for sharing with siblings and friends and solitary gaming.
The upside of this general movement towards a separate bedroom culture (or private media spaces) is that there are more spaces to engage with media technologies and therefore more viewing choice for family members. These extra media spaces have freed up the lounge room possibly allowing for more harmony and accord within the family, while at the same time bringing about the opportunity for some family members to retreat from the social togetherness of family television viewing. However, with the limitations of one outlet per household in Australian pay TV, the lounge room has again become the focus of family television viewing in some Australian homes. With over twenty percent of Australian homes now subscribing to pay TV (Australian Film Commission) some Australian families may again be experiencing the togetherness (and the inevitable struggles) of sharing one television set.
In the days when one television set was the norm, Morley explored the way in which family viewing habits reflected existing power relationships in the home, focussing mainly on issues concerned with gender and class in the UK home. Twenty years later, in our house on the other side of the world, similar battles are taking place – Dragonball Z vs. Ocean Girl, Robot Wars vs. Buffy and World Series Cricket vs. Changing Rooms. However, unlike Morley’s Family Television the results of these gendered battles are too close to call. Perhaps, with forty or more channels to choose from, and programs designed to appeal to specific family members, the stakes are even higher and the battle has only just begun.
Today’s media-rich home environments, with multiple television sets and digital technologies, seem to have gone some way to resolving household conflicts over television viewing allowing for more choice and individualisation of media consumption. However, the introduction of pay TV in Australia has seen a return to the living room politics of family television viewing somewhat reminiscent of Morley’s Family Television where sharing the family television reflected and highlighted existing family power relationships and struggles.