Why people watch TV

Donna Michelle Jones


There are many different reasons why people watch television, and that the reasons vary for each individual. For example, after a long day at university. I sometimes, go home and choose to watch a soap opera such as East Enders as a form of escapism and relaxation, whereas someone else may prefer to watch it as a form of company or for fulfilment if they were lonely. Examples will be discussed in more detail throughout the essay.

I will also be discussing the typology of common reasons for media use which is offered by Denis McQuail, a Professor of Mass Communication at the University of Amsterdam, as well as the one offered by James Lull, a researcher, writer and broadcaster in San Francisco - a typology of the social uses of television based on ethnographic research, and will compare them. I will also discuss 'Uses and Gratifications' and the criticisms of this school of thought.


Another subject which I would also like to discuss briefly before discussing the points of interest mentioned above, is the subject of 'guilt' that people feel when they watch television. Even though this isn't the main subject of discussion for this particular essay, I feel that it should be considered a valid point when discussing people and why they watch television.

Anyone who watches television in my opinion, may experience the feeling of guilt. It is suggested by Condry that middle class and heavy viewers experience the most feelings of guilt when watching television (Condry 1989: 46).

The main reason for this feeling of guilt may be because people find that watching television is an activity which is easily available and requires a minimum amount of effort. This idea can be justified if one compares other leisure activities to watching television e.g. when going to the cinema to see a film, one would need to look presentable in order to go out, as well as the extra cost of paying for the commodity (even though there would be the cost of electricity when watching television in the home). As well as this, the viewer at the cinema would have to sit respectably (although this is somewhat difficult in cinema seats). When sitting at home, the above factors do not need to be considered; the viewer doesn't feel obliged to act in such ways and can do whatever they like, so long as they do not have any company. If the viewer did have company, they may then feel obliged to sit respectably. Therefore, this idea is subject to social context. It may be partly due to this that so much television is watched, and as a result, a feeling of guilt may be experienced.

It is possible to understand this feeling of guilt when one relates it to one's own experiences. I, myself, like to watch soap operas, as well as various other programmes, but do, however, feel a tremendous amount of guilt when I know that I should be writing one of my many essays which need to be handed in.

Uses and gratifications

The next factor which I would like to discuss in relation to why people watch television is that of 'Uses and Gratifications', also referred to as 'Needs and Gratifications'. Even though the idea was reviewed in the 1970s and 1980s, it actually originated in the 1940s, and is extremely influential amongst media researchers. The basic principle of uses and gratifications refers to why people use certain media rather than what they use, or for the purpose of this essay, why people watch television rather than what they watch on television. This idea stems from a 'functionalist' paradigm, which means the needs of the individual. "As applied to the media institution, the presumed 'needs' have mainly to do with continuity, order, integration, motivation, guidance, socialisation, adaptation etc." (McQuail 1994:77). These factors may differ in each different type of society e.g. motivation may not be so strong in one society as it is in another.

Such an approach is in contrast with the 'media effects' tradition. Uses and gratifications can be seen as what people do with media, rather than what media do to people. This allows for a number of different responses and interpretations, including the viewer's own experience and knowledge. It is possible to see gratifications as 'effects' which could cause viewers to respond in similar ways. Take, for example, the horror genre. The ways in which people react when watching this particular genre, from my experience, are very similar. By this I mean that if the film was extremely scary, people may not be able to look at the screen, they might peer through their hands, cuddle up to someone else etc., but they would be scared. As in everything, there are exceptions to the rule, and some people may not scare easily and/or try to laugh it off. However, even laughing it off could be seen to be an effect.

When watching television, gratifications can be derived from a number of factors which will now be discussed. The content of a programme may play some part in the development of a viewer's sense of identity e.g. the viewer might compare his or her self with the character by seeing whether he or she would act in the same or different way. Familiarity of genre also gives gratification. Genre helps media users to plan their choices. Both programme makers and media audiences recognise genres. Genre labels include 'horror', 'adventure' etc. and such labels help viewers with their selection. An example of this would be if a potential viewer were to visit a video shop in pursuit of their favourite type of video, it would be possible for that person to look under the required genre in order to select their choice easily. They get gratifications from being familiar with their favourite genre.

McQuail, Blumer and Brown give examples of gratifications derived from various genres and suggest that from watching a quiz show, they may involve rating oneself e.g. comparing oneself to the contestants, being able to interact socially e.g. discussing the programme with others, getting excited e.g. when getting a correct answer and also from education e.g. finding that one knows more than they originally thought. Many other ideas are also suggested (McQuail, Blumer, Brown 1972 cited in Chandler D (nd: 1995): ‘Why people watch television [www document]. URL http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/usegrat.html.

As well as the above ideas, general exposure to the medium also offers gratification: e.g. from my own experience, I like watching television because I can escape from the real world and relax. It helps me forget my problems, and sometimes helps…[ in finding answers to those problems. Also, social context when watching television gives gratification. An example of this would be sitting next to someone you like whilst watching television, or maybe having an argument with someone about the characters on television, being able to socialise. These ideas can be seen in the two typologies which will be discussed later on in the essay.

The factors which determine the different needs of the viewers also vary and are as follows. The stage of maturation which the viewer is at is an important factor to consider e.g. what one person is watching in order to satisfy their needs may be seen as childish by another viewer, resulting in the fact that the needs of one might not be satisfied. Having said that, several people at once can gratify different needs with the same programme.

Backgrounds are another factor which help to determine the needs of the individual i.e. the viewer may have specific expectations or needs from the programme, which relate to the way in which they have been brought up e.g. by way of social class, race etc. An example of this would be if a viewer of a different race, who had a different religion, were to watch Songs Of Praise, he or she might expect or need to see rituals performed the way in which he or she believes, according to his or her religion.

Social roles can also be seen on television, and it is possible to learn from television the way in which people react and/or behave in various situations. An example of this could be that a viewer may have an idea of how a working-class family might act if their sixteen-year-old daughter told them she was pregnant, as shown in East Enders with Michelle Fowler.

A final point relevant to this discussion of the individual's needs, is individual personalities i.e. whether the viewer is an introvert/extrovert, whether they are analytical and so on. An analytical person may prefer to watch a documentary which they can analyse, whereas an extrovert may prefer a quiz show, where he or she can shout out the answers and show of to the rest of the viewers. Along with this, it is possible to discuss audience characteristics and the types of genres which they watch in relation to their needs/uses and gratifications e.g. children may need to watch cartoons for emotional release. Audience characteristics can be discussed in terms of age, sex, race and social class.


A survey carried out by A C Nielsen based on data collected from America, (Condry 1989: 42) reported the different types of programmes watched by viewers of different ages and sex. It was found that children between the age of two and eleven watched a variety of children's programmes including cartoons, as well as watching sitcoms, with the most popular programme being The Bill Cosby Show.

For teenagers aged twelve to seventeen, the majority of programmes viewed were sitcoms, with Growing Pains being the most popular. Men over the age of eighteen showed that in their opinion, sitcoms were popular, as were sports programmes, with a programme called 60 Minutes being the most popular. Finally, women over the age of eighteen liked soaps, movies and once again, sitcoms, with the most popular programme being The Bill Cosby Show (Condry 1989: 42).

From my own experiences, having watched all of the types of programmes mentioned above, I feel that different uses and gratifications can be derived from them. Take for example cartoons. When I watch them, my needs are for entertainment from the cartoon, or a form of escapism into a world of unreality, or maybe for just something to do, even though my needs do vary. However, when a child watches a cartoon, they may look towards it as educational or informative or they might watch it for excitement and stimulation. Therefore, this suggest to me that the same programme may be viewed by different viewers i.e. audiences with different characteristics, in order to fulfil different needs, resulting in obtaining different gratifications.

If I compare myself to the people in the category which best suits me i.e. women over eighteen years of age who like sitcoms, soaps and movies, I find I can relate to this completely. I presume that they watch these types of programmes for the same reasons as I: i.e. a form of escapism into another world, excitement and stimulation, to cheer myself up or just as something to do, as well as being able to socialise. Other reasons why I watch these types of programmes include helping me to solve problems, aiding decision making and comparing myself in relation to the characters on television. An example of this would be when I compare myself to Ian Beale from East Enders, and vow never to act like him for as long as I live, because most people I know consider him to be an idiot. Another example would be comparing myself to Michelle Fowler and seeing whether I would be able to cope with bringing up a child on my own. By doing this, one gets an insight into themselves.

After consulting various members of my family and friends, I found out why they watch soap operas. One viewer reported that she watched soaps because they were on at the same time as she sat down to eat her tea. These soaps included Home and Away and Neighbours. Another viewer reported that he watches soaps as they are on the same time as he arrives home from work, therefore, he likes to sit down and relax with a soap opera. He uses them as a form of escapism from the real world. Such soaps include Coronation Street and East Enders.

It was reported by other viewers that they watched soaps in order to get an insight into other people's lives, and they found that their lives were much the same as the characters. "It enables them to evaluate their own experiences as well as norms and values they live by" (Seiter, Borches, Kreutzner, Warth 1989: 236). Viewers found that if a character had the same problem as them, and dealt with it, that this aided the viewers in their problem-solving and decision-making. An example of this is that one of the viewer's daughters got pregnant at an early age, and this particular viewer was able to relate to the way in which the Fowler family in East Enders responded when Michelle got pregnant.

One other viewer claimed that she thoroughly enjoyed watching Coronation Street because of the variety of gratifications which she derived from it e.g. she always cheers up when she sees Reg Holdsworth. She also found that it helped her with decision making ad problem-solving. She claimed that she could relate to the stereotypes which it portrays e.g. Raquel, the bimbo behind the bar. However, with East Enders, she felt that even though she could relate to the characters, after watching an episode, it always made her feel depressed, that there were never any 'high spirits' in it.

Others claimed that they watched soap operas for something to do or just because they were in the room at the same time the soap was on.

Not all of the uses and gratifications mentioned are associated with watching just one genre. It depends very much on the individual and their circumstances e.g. if I were fed up I would watch a sitcom for stimulation and to cheer myself up and maybe no other gratifications would be derived from it. Having said that, it could be found that gratifications which hadn't been expected may be derived e.g. I might watch a soap opera to escape into another world, but instead might find that one of the characters has the same problem which I have. They might be able to solve the problem, and as a result I might be able to use the same method, thus, resulting in the gratification of helping me solve my problem.

Factors of race and social class are also involved. Blacks are reported as preferring to watch programmes with black actors rather than white ones (Condry 1989: 40). This preference for black actors maybe that blacks feel that they are able to identify with them better. Poor white people tend to watch more television than those who are better off financially, whereas with blacks, it is those who are better off financially who tend to watch more television than those who are poor, although as pointed out by John Condry "The black viewing audience is similar to the white audience" (Condry 1989: 42).

Comparing typologies

I will next discuss the school of thought offered by Denis McQuail i.e. the typology of 'common sense' reasons for media use. This consists of four different categories which include: information, personal identity, integration and social interaction and also entertainment. Each of these categories can be sub-divided further and each will be discussed in turn.

Firstly, 'information' suggests that the audience inform themselves about something by using the media e.g. by watching television. The audience may want to learn about things which they might not have directly experienced themselves. Sub-divisions of information include viewers finding out about events around them and in the world in general, for advice and decision making (resulting in the audience being able to make choices) as well as for curiosity and general interest, for education and to feel secure by acquiring knowledge.

Secondly, McQuail suggests that the audience use the media for 'personal identity'. Again this can be sub-divided and McQuail refers to 'reinforcement of personal values' (McQuail 1987: 73) i.e. justification for behaviour. The viewer may look to a character in order to see how they would react in a certain situation and see whether they agree with the character, thus getting an insight into themselves. The viewer may look to a character in order to "identify with a valued other (in the media)" (McQuail 1987: 73), as well as using the character as a role model by identifying with things that they do and placing themselves in relation to the character e.g. I wouldn't act they way that Ian Beale does.

Thirdly, McQuail suggests 'integration and social interaction'. Once again this is subdivided into more specific reasons. The audiences are able to see the life style and state of affairs of other people and identify with other people and gain 'a sense of belonging' (McQuail 1987: 73). This could mean that the viewer is not alone - when watching television, some viewers are able to watch the programme in the company of others, thus gaining a sense of belonging. All viewers are able to talk about it with others afterwards, and some do so more than others. As reported by Ellen Seiter when discussing watching soap operas, "most viewers report that they have made it a habit to rely on other people in order to compensate for gaps in their comprehension" (Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner, Warth 1989: 233). In other words, if a viewer has missed a soap, they will depend on someone else to fill them in on what has happened in the soap, maybe a friend or relative, and a discussion may form from this. Further to this, it helps one in their social roles and again as suggested by McQuail can be a 'a substitute for real-life companionship' (McQuail 1987: 73). An example of this could be that television might create an atmosphere so that the viewer is able to hear voices and not feel alone. Another example could be that the viewer lives his or her life through one of the characters or a number of characters in order to fulfil his or her own personal ambitions e.g. Mr and Mrs Crosby winning the lottery in Brookside.

Finally, entertainment is also another reason which McQuail suggests. This includes using media, or television in this case, as a form of escapism from our real-life situations, as well as using it in order to relax. Other points which McQuail mentions are 'filling in time' (McQuail 1987: 73), perhaps the viewer is bored or anxious and needs to take their mind off things, as well as using it for 'emotional release and sexual arousal' (McQuail 1987: 73). By watching a programme for sexual arousal, this may help some individuals to release emotions and frustrations and could result in a reduction of rapes and other sex offences. However, as seen with the film Natural Born Killers, watching could encourage the actions seen on the programme or film.

James Lull's typology includes the social uses of television and is based on ethnographic research. It can be split into two broad categories known as 'Structural' and 'Relational' uses, and each will be discussed in turn.

With reference to the structural uses of television offered by Lull, one can see that the idea is similar to that of McQuail's 'integration and social interaction'. By this I mean television can be a companion. 'It is a companion for accomplishing household chores and routines and used for background noise as an environmental resource' (Lull 1990: 35). I can relate to this, as sometimes if I am writing an essay, I prefer to put on some music as sometimes it can be too quiet for me to concentrate. I find I work better with background music. Lull also suggests that it is a good creator of atmosphere. 'By rendering a constant and predictable assortment of sounds and pictures which instantly creates a busy atmosphere' (Lull 1990: 35). People who live alone and/or feel lonely, may find that by doing this, they don't feel so lonely As well as this, like McQuail, Lull puts forward the idea that television is a good variable to construct interaction and entertainment e.g. if guests call to the house, the television can be used to entertain them if there is no alternative, and conversations about the programmes and characters stem from this.

Another suggestion made by Lull is that television can be used as a 'behavioural regulator' (a function not listed by McQuail) - television is used as a punctuator. By this, Lull means that activities such as mealtimes, chore times etc. are punctuated by television e.g. if a mother was to do her ironing, she might plan to do it after watching her favourite programme on television. In addition to this, he argues that due to the watching of television, talk patterns may also be affected e.g. viewers may be too interested in the programme which they are watching, therefore might not start up a discussion for fear of missing something vital.

Lull's other category - relational uses of television - relates to the ways in which audience members use television to create practical social arrangements (Lull 1990: 37). Relational uses can also be split into sub-divisions which include communication facilitation, affiliation/avoidance, social learning and competence/dominance. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

Communication facilitation means that children can use television in order to help them to talk about real-life situations when they find it difficult to find the correct words when talking to an adult. Children may also use television as a means of joining in conversations with an adults e.g. if the adult is discussing television and the child can identify with a character which is being discussed, they too are able to join in and talk about it. Lull also argues that by switching on the television, there is an immediate reduction of anxiety (also suggested by McQuail). Another function which both Lull and McQuail suggest, is that of social interaction or 'creating an immediate agenda for talk' (Lull 1990: 37). This can also be related to the idea of 'common ground' i.e. when having guests around, some people switch the television to a programme which is familiar to all. Due to such interaction and discussion about the characters etc., the audience may develop value clarification i.e. they are able to clarify the way they feel about certain things - they may be more able to give opinions and show their attitudes.

The function of affiliation/avoidance is also outlined by Lull i.e. the idea of physical and/or verbal contact or neglect. An example of this would be a moment of intimacy with a couple whilst watching television, or at least with the television switched on. Another idea is that of relation maintenance - watching television may offer an 'alternative reality' for the viewer to live in, they are able to escape from their normal lives and live in the world of others by watching television. As well as this, television may help in promoting family solidarity e.g. the family may all laugh at the same thing on television at the same time. As well as this, television can help by being a family relaxant. 'Viewing promotes family harmony by reducing interpersonal discord' (Lull 1990: 39), however, this is not true for all cases, even though it can help to reduce conflict between the family as they are all engaged in watching the television, it could also cause the family to argue if their opinions about a certain character, for example, were to differ.

Social learning is the next factor which Lull suggests is a social use of television, and, once again lists some functions suggested by McQuail. These include decision-making as well as modelling behaviour (things to do or not to do), problem-solving and information dissemination (all of these have been discussed previously with reference to McQuail), as has the idea of self-learning, or as defined by Lull 'substitute schooling' and 'value transmission and legitimisation' (or what McQuail calls 'reinforcement of personal values').

Finally there is the category of competence/dominance. This includes role entactment which is reinforced by the parent regulating the watching of television programmes as a gate- keeper. By doing this, Lull argues, the children and parent are able to observe "role- determined and rule-governed actions" (Lull 1990: 42).

In addition to this, role-reinforcement may be derived from watching television, and once again is similar to an idea of McQuail's i.e. acceptable behaviour, imitation of characters and reinforcement of personal values. Lull also suggests that television is useful in offering a substitute role i.e. a substitute of someone who may be missing from peoples lives. An example of this is that if a child has a missing parent, then by watching television which contains an impression of the missing parent, the child can get an image of how that particular parent would be/act if they were present. I, myself can relate to this as I live with my father, but we live apart from my mother and brother - therefore, I get an image of how a complete family should be when I watch television programmes and adverts with 'the perfect family' e.g. the 'OXO family'. In my opinion, however, this does not substitute my family, nor would I expect it to substitute anyone else's, as the way in which the family are portrayed in this particular advert is very much a fancy of an ideal world. Therefore, I realise that this is not the way my family would act if they were all together again.

Lull also argues that people watch television for intellectual validation i.e. in order to show how competent they are intellectually and to show their authority on the subject in question. As a result of this, arguments may arise if viewers disagree.

Criticisms of uses and gratifications

When asking why people choose to watch a particular programme, it is possible to see that there are limitations in obtaining results which are one hundred percent accurate. Such limitations include the fact that the viewer may not be able to explain why they chose the programme as they may not know why. I, myself can relate to this, as sometimes I turn on the television and stumble across a programme just by flicking through the channels. Suddenly I find that I am interested and watching that programme. As well as this, reasons which the viewer gives might be the least important or could just be reasons which they have heard someone else giving.

An alternative idea of studying the viewers' engagement with television would be as they are actually watching it. An example of this could be putting a camera into the television and recording both the viewer and their activities as well as what is actually on the television. In my opinion, this would also be difficult to interpret and the viewer may not act normally due to the fact that they are being watched.

Uses and gratifications has been criticised as being 'vulgar gratificationism', that it is individualistic i.e. independent and psychologistic i.e. specialises in mental characteristics - the mind and how it works. It is also argued that it does tend to ignore factors such as different cultures and societies. Openess of interpretation may be derived from the exaggeration of active choices, which implies that a viewer may receive any gratification no matter which programmes they prefer.


There are many different reasons why people watch television. These reasons vary between each individual._When considering these reasons, uses and gratifications (which vary due to different audience characteristics) need to be considered._There are also criticisms of uses and gratifications._The two typologies (McQuail and Lull) contain similar ideas although each do suggest individual ideas.


November 1995