I am long overdue a new television set. To my embarrassment, my television set is second hand, occasionally cuts out and sits atop an ugly prefabricated television stand that clashes with the surrounding 1950s-era furniture. I have considered purchasing a 1950s-era television set but it would not, of course, be WiFi enabled and internet-ready. So I have been searching for a television set that both meets my technological demands and complements my interior design. This has led me to view some of the current advertisements for television sets. Recently, I was struck by lack of reference to the domestic context of viewing in the latest advertisement for the Sony 4K Ultra HD television set. Being somewhat more interested in home décor than in utility, I have always struggled to blend my colourful retro furniture with monotone domestic technologies. Contemporary television sets, for me, seem abstracted from the home environment clashing with it rather than fitting in. The advertisement for the Sony 4K Ultra HD television set points to its unease of place, with much of the ad situated within an imagined diegesis of a televised world. The place of the television set in the home, the television’s viewer (s) the entire context of home use is largely absent from the ad. Instead, the viewer looks towards, and is part of, the outside world. One person sits on her bed looking through a large window at a fireworks display, another faces away from the living room and out towards a cityscape. Two people meet outside to view the fireworks suggesting that the Sony TV allows one to escape the confines of the domestic space.
Advertisements for other television sets, like the LG Ultra HDTV or the Sony Bravia imagine the home space as sparsely furnished and largely colourless, brought to life only by the presence of the television image. The living room exists not as a social space that the television set contributes to. Instead the television set organises the living space. Not only does the television set attract attention its way by its sheer size and image quality, but the living space is figured as inferior, functioning in many ways as a kind of viewing platform. An LG Infinia print advertisement, for example, has a largely bare room enlivened by the television image.
The Philips Ambilight TV advertisement gives more attention to the living space and the social arrangements that organise it. However, it begins by mocking the home design pretentions of set owners ‘Bonny and Dan’ who are represented as inept at organising their living space. The television set acts as a supplement to their interior design, where they can focus their attention away from their domestic setting and towards the screen image.
In both cases, the television set functions to imagine the home space as lacking and to erase the viewing context and the role of living space beyond television.
This represents a shift in direction from early television set advertisements in which domestic sociality and interior design were paramount. If contemporary television set advertisements suggest how television can supplant the ordinariness of domestic life, early advertisements sought to demonstrate how the television set could sustain those very relations. The television set would reflect existing interior design and support sociality.
The emergence of a television culture in the post-War years was in many ways dependent upon securing its relevance and value as a domestic object. Television viewing was imagined as viewed in the privacy of the home. Consequently potential viewers were urged to invest in home television-sets. In selling television sets to the public, manufacturers, broadcasters and advertisers had to contend with the concerns about the extent to which the visual image of television would command attention away from home activities and relationships. They also needed to convince the public that there was space in the home for television, not only as yet another form of leisure or information but also in more logistical terms. There was concern amongst some members of the public that there simply was no room for the television set. During the late 1940s print advertisements increasingly situated the device in a ‘living room,’ suggesting a shift in focus from ‘how it functions’ to ‘where it functions.’ In providing a template for television in the home, manufacturers, sellers and advertisers developed a set of conventions for home viewing. They suggested ways of reorganising the domestic space and the network of relationships within it.
Lynn Spigel’s (1992) account of the domestication of the television set in the US of the 1950s points to the ways in which advertising campaigns worked hard to develop spatial normalisation of the television set in the home. Important for the establishment of a television culture was the confirmation of the television set both as an inevitable part of the home space and as a contribution to the family dynamics and relationships imagined as part of domesticity. In the UK, the public required direction on how television was to be used. In the February 1949 UK Mass Observation responses to a question about television, feelings towards television sets were largely negative. Many thought that television would be watched in the dark, resulting in concern for those who would undertake chores and activities such as sewing and reading. A Mrs Barritt cautions as much in her ‘housewife’s point of view,’ whereby she implies that the television set would displace her regular activities (File Report 2903). Alongside viewing conditions, others were concerned about where to situate the television set and how it might compete against other forms of leisure and relaxation. Mary Coates Towers describes a preferred interior design that places the family towards the fireplace and notes that “there just doesn’t seem to be anywhere to put it [the television set].” (File Report 1362) The sense in which a television set might overcrowd the domestic space is evident in the remark of Helen Louise Palmer, whose “house is already over full of furniture and anything further would be most unwelcome” (File Report 3418).
Television advertisers worked to convince the potential television set purchaser of television’s contribution to, rather than interference with, the domestic space and the relationships within it. The television set was represented as fitting into home life in a number of ways. Where some early 1940s advertisements showed television screened in a darkened room, later ones emphasised the ability to view in daytime lighting conditions.
Often the television set was envisioned as ornamental as much as technological. The design of many sets erased its hard, industrial identity and established it as much as a contribution to the home décor as a medium of news and entertainment. In many cases, the television set had a dual function as a broadcast apparatus as well as an aesthetic object, with adverts for Arvin, Dumont and Sentinel television sets furnished with intricate designs, or topped with flower arrangements or ornaments.
By foregrounding the decorative function of the television set, manufacturers worked to overcome the potential understanding of television as a ‘boys’ toy.’ According to William Boddy (2004), trade literature on the subject of television set sales was indicative of a desire to capture a broader market beyond amateurs and hobbyists. Television set advertisements followed suit and the technological capabilities of television were replaced with representations of the social role and place of television in the living room. Where many pre-War advertisements pictured an ornate television set dislocated from any particular space or environment, the post-War period saw an increase in those that positioned it in a specific place in the home. In representing the context of viewing, advertisements placed the television in the parlour or sitting room rather than in the kitchen or bedroom. The television set was, therefore, a tool of sociality, of entertainment and entertaining. Where some advertisement campaigns proposed the television set as a replacement for cinema or theatre, many others focused on the television set as a distinctly domestic utility. Seating was arranged around the screen in such a way as to encourage interaction and communication. Families focused on each other as much as the television screen.
This aimed to dispel notions of the television set interfering with family socialisation. Instead, the family both shared in viewing and interacted with each other. Even further, the television set encouraged socialising beyond the family. The television set facilitated home entertaining, with friends invited to sporting events or more glamorous affairs such as cocktail parties.
The television set advertisements – although only one element of the discursive production of television viewing in the home – were largely shaped by dominant ideals of domestic organisation and sociality. Although advertisements constantly played upon the technical achievements of individual sets, they also convinced the potential set purchaser that the television set could be assimilated into the architectural and decorative design of the home as well as the social relations of family and friends.
The television set has retained some of this function of collective viewing and socialisation. It continues to occupy the ‘living room’ although it has, of course, stretched beyond this and sits in many other spaces too. Screen size has grown and design has been streamlined and simplified. Television sets now foreground their technology and are rarely designed in ways that mimic furniture or décor. The television set satisfies a perceived lack in the home, liberating the individual or family from the confines of the domestic space and the ordinariness of home life. The home is not imagined as refuge, but as imprisonment, from the world. The television set enables one to turn from the domestic and to fantasise about a dynamic and colourful life beyond the four walls of the living room. The anxieties expressed in the file reports of the 1949 entries for Mass Observation – that television would undermine and distract from domestic activities – are, in many ways, realised. Television advertisements work harder to separate the television from domesticity than to incorporate it within it. The change of focus in television set advertisements might be suggestive of their de-prioritisation of domestic sociality as well as a desire to alter notions of interiority. The contemporary television set seems to compete with the domestic, with advertisements implying that the television set not simply integrates with the home space but supplements it. This, of course, shows only how advertisers imagine people relate to the domestic and nothing of those real relations. However, it perhaps adds another dimension to discussions about how television imagines its audience. Contemporary television advertisements imply an alienation from the domestic space. Television viewers are often facing away from each other, if not absent altogether. The television set rescues the viewer from the banal routine of domesticity. It solves an imagined problem of the home.
As for my problem of which television set to buy, I’m thinking 4K HD 3D curved smart TV. Or a Bush.
Sarah Arnold is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Falmouth University. She is currently working on the book Television, Technology and Gender: New Platforms and New Audiences for I.B. Tauris. Her previous books include Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood (Palgrave) and the co-authored book The Film Handbook (Routledge). Her research focuses on viewing spaces and environments of, and within, television and film.