A family divided

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One of many television industry beliefs influenced by the legendary comedian Milton Berle was an assumption that families would watch television together, and that consequently the medium should be programmed for wide generational appeal. After all, watching TV as a family had been the nearly universal practice among households with children during the first few years when Berle’s NBC variety show, “The Texaco Star Theater,” dominated television. On Tuesday nights, families routinely gathered around the TV set to watch the hour-long program that premiered in 1948. TV dinners were invented. Movie theater attendance sagged. Americans flocked to buy TV sets. 

Despite the vast popularity of “Uncle Miltie,” it didn’t take long for network executives to discern that audiences could be cultivated in a different manner, effectively by dividing and conquering. In August of 1950, the American Broadcasting Company began broadcasting two programs aimed at kids: “Animal Clinic,” featuring live animals, and “Acrobat Ranch,” a circus-themed program featuring regulars Tumbling Tim and Flying Flo. Other programs followed in the early 1950s: “The Small Fry Club,” a puppet serial, “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and Robert “Buffalo Bob” Smith’s “The Howdy Doody Show.” Beginning in the early 1960s, networks began a longstanding practice of televising cartoons on Saturday mornings, provoking another weekly ritual in millions of U.S. households.

The parsing of audiences into demographic subsets, and the eager embrace of new media options by young people, has been going on ever since. Propelled in large measure by new delivery and storage technologies, and often with cable television at its center, the new-media world of children and teens looks very little like the comparatively innocent landscape of the early 1960s.

Today young people are immersed in media. A comprehensive study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation in March, 2005, illustrates the case. A compilation of reports submitted by 2,032 kids 8-18, the study found the average U.S. youth spends roughly 6.5 hours a day interacting with some form of media – television, music, online content, cell-phone text messages, video games and more. At least, that’s what a linear-time analysis suggests. In fact, the report’s authors note, by using several mediums at the same time, kids actually consume close to 8.5 hours of media content a day, crammed into a 6.5 hour time span.

That’s a dramatic behavioral shift from the early years of children’s television, when a few hours on Saturday mornings constituted the bulk of youth electronic media exposure. 

What’s changed? The sheer torrent of options available. The amount of time kids devote to music, games, messages and television shows has expanded not so much because children have developed a sudden appetite for more, but because a proliferation of delivery technologies fulfills an incumbent hunger. As the Kaiser Family Foundation notes, “The amount of media a person used to consume in a month can be downloaded in minutes and carried in a device the size of a lipstick tube.”

The impact of this techno-proliferation can be seen in a breadth of media vehicles that have transformed the modern-day youth’s bedroom into a multimedia lair. According to Kaiser’s study, 68 percent of kids 8-18 have TV sets in their bedrooms, and 37 percent have cable or satellite TV connections. Plus, 49 percent have video game consoles, 31 percent have computers and 20 percent have online access in their rooms. But the media life of children doesn’t start and stop in the bedroom. Children lead an unmistakable movement toward mobility and portability in media devices. According to Kaiser’s research, 55 percent own a handheld video game player, 39 percent have a cell phone, and 18 percent own an MP3 player. 

A temptation to believe we have reached a nexus of media saturation typifies a reading of these sorts of statistics. The history of media suggests no such thing. Although there are certainly defined limits over the amount of hours in a day, there is no proscription on the number of activities that might be undertaken simultaneously. For example, young people who are the most avid computer and video game users spend the most time watching TV. And 26 percent the time young people use one medium, they’re simultaneously engaged in at least one other. This multitasking migration is one of the consequences of the anything-anytime dimension of new media technology, where content availability is determined increasingly by users. That wasn’t the case when Buffalo Bob delighted kids for an hour every week. It is now. 

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