This research reports the findings of a qualitative research project that utilizes in-depth interviews to explore how family members make decisions concerning the rental of commercially prerecorded video material, and how they structure their subsequent viewing. Kellner (1995) explains that media culture is part of the fabric of everyday life, and that research which brings understanding to how it functions is significant because "the gaining of critical media literacy is an important resource for individuals and citizens in learning how to cope with this seductive cultural environment" (p. 2). People rent videos as a part of everyday life and this ritual has become a significant part of the larger media culture.
Studies on the social viewing of television (with and without prerecorded video-playing technology) have demonstrated both its communal uses and individual uses (see Lull, 1988; Spigel, 1992). Television viewing dominates family leisure time in the United States (Alexander, 1994; Douglas, 2003), and occurs within a wide range of behaviors from close attentive viewing to distracted viewing as other activities may primarily command the viewers' attention (Douglas, 2003).
Morrison and Krugman (2001) argue that most media consumption occurs in the home with the family as a primary unit of consumption. Lull (1980) explains that families use television to structure their social time with one another. Kubley (1994) argues that research reveals that media viewing brings the family together. Further research indicates that television viewing can not only unite families in a social setting but can also promote interpersonal interaction (see Douglas, 2003; Kubley & Donovan, 2001). This is partially because, while watching together, viewers often engage in interpersonal communication (Kubley, 1994; Kubley & Donovan, 2001). Moreover, Alexander argues that family television viewing "at least partially defines the context within which family interaction occurs and therefore helps determine the meaning of that interaction" (1994, p. 53).
However, other researchers have found that television viewing in the domestic setting is becoming a more solitary activity. Kotler, Wright and Huston (2001) explain that by the end of the twentieth century, 80% of U. S. families had two or more television sets, and that nearly two-thirds of adolescents and almost one-third of preschoolers had sets in their bedrooms. Furthermore, the onset of multiple television households has encouraged media programmers to develop niche programming based on age and other demographics (Kubley & Donovan, 2001). Andreasen (2001) argues that television consumption is becoming a more solitary experience with family members watching their favorite television shows individually, and that this situation does not promote family understanding or togetherness.
The home media environment has become increasingly diverse. Morrison and Krugman (2001) group home media technologies into television clusters and computer clusters with VCRs and similar technology combined in the television cluster. They find that the two clusters are spatially separated in the home with the television cluster in social areas and the computer cluster in smaller private areas such as home offices. They argue that the television cluster encourages "a large degree of social interaction in the home" and that the VCR was the most socializing technology as it encouraged watching videos with others (p. 143). Similarly, Jordan (1990) found that families have "norms relating to time and space that are reflected in VCR behaviors" as they tend to come together at certain times to view (p. 176).
Morrison and Krugman report that, in the television cluster, "several participants recounted special viewing events, such as 'family night' which was a pre-determined type of viewing where household members would rent a video and watch it together" (2001, p. 143). Conversely, they found the computer cluster to reduce social interaction within the family. Therefore, given all the research, it appears that the television technology cluster provides the best opportunity for family social time involving media and does, at times, bring the often separated family member viewers together.
Although new technologies such as the DVD player are replacing the VCR in the home, the previous research on viewing prerecorded video material is centered on VCR use. This does not pose a significant challenge to the current usefulness of that research as families use the newer technologies in much the same way as they used the earlier technology in terms of replacing VCR players with DVD players. As Atkin explains, research has "failed to uncover any evidence of wholesale displacement of old media by new media" (2001, p. 54). New media technologies such as video on demand (VOD), digital video recorders (DVR), and video downloading, are slowly growing in popularity but they are limited in terms of age and socioeconomic demographics. For example, DVR households are more affluent with higher incomes and more education (Vorhaus, 2007) and the greatest impact of this technology is among adults 18-34 (Whitney, 2007). DVR technology use is currently at 20% (Guthrie & Grossman, 2008), but 13% of the people in DVR households report that they do not use the technology ("How do you TiVo," 2008). Moreover, 61% of users in DVR households report that they use DVD players weekly to view programs, and 34% report that they still use VCRs each week to view programs ("How do you TiVo," 2008). Most interesting to the current research, although DVR and VOD have cut into the time that DVR households spend watching real-time television, "little change has been seen for rented or purchased DVDs and cassettes" (Whitney, 2007, p. 10). Thus the limited impact of these new technologies points to the continued importance of the previous VCR use research and to the significance of the current research. Finally, as Andreasen (2001) argues, the family television viewing experience is more important than issues of media convergence or medium domination, and includes the television set, pre-recorded electronic media players, and other connected technologies that provide the viewing experience.
Lin (2001) asserts that VCRs are a very important technological development to family life in the United States. Levy (1987) reports that in the Western world, VCR use complements regular television viewing and only slightly decreases the total amount of time viewing regular television. Although there is an obvious connection between watching television and watching prerecorded electronic video media (e.g., Rosengren, Wenner & Palmgreen, 1985), viewing commercially prerecorded video material is comparable to both watching traditional television fare and going to a movie theater to see a film. Theater movie attendance is often a social activity and the viewers are usually more attentive to the motion picture than they are during distracted television viewing. Krugman, Shamp and Johnson used focus groups, surveys, and a statistical methodology to investigate these two comparisons and found that watching prerecorded movies on video can be considered a "hybrid form of viewing" (1991, p. 128) with some participants reporting that they perceive it more like watching television and others saying they perceive it as more like going to motion picture theaters.
Rubin and Bantz (1987) investigate the VCR's utility and explain that the VCR is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, technology that helps users be more active in their viewing by being more "motivated and intentional in behavior, selecting what content to tape or rent and when to view it" (p. 482). Likewise, Lin (2001) explains that avid VCR users are more active viewers and that technology allows users to better structure their viewing, and that VCRs are used in "creating a socializing opportunity" (p. 94). Lin (1990) explains that, by 1988, VCR users rented more prerecorded tapes than they recorded themselves for time-shifting purposes and reported that the rental of prerecorded videos was increasing steadily. Dobrow (1990) explains that the data indicates "that the primary and most highly rated function of the VCR for its users is ... its ability to permit the viewing of prerecorded videocassettes" (pp. 72-73). Jordan (1990) explains that one study's participants were most likely to view rented videos or prerecorded television favorites when viewing as a family, and that the parents reported that they also rented prerecorded movies to watch together without their children on weekend evenings as a way of reconnecting. Gunter and Levy (1987) found that most respondents believed that viewing prerecorded video electronic media was an enjoyable means of spending time with family and friends.
Most urban areas have a variety of video stores from which to rent commercially prerecorded video. They range according to tastes and interests from large nationwide video store chains, to stores that specialize in pornography, Asian videos, Gay/Lesbian videos, and other genres and modes. Furthermore, there is a wide variety of individual choices even within specialized video stores. This selection may prompt video renters to think more about their viewing options as Dobrow (1990) reports research findings that indicate that VCR owners were more likely than non-VCR owners to state that they planned their...