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La Transmission des valeurs par la télévision britannique

Monica Charlot

The context

Pam Mills

Texte intégral

  • 1 I would like to acknowledge all the help I have received in writing this paper from the BBC’s Broa (...)

1The rest of this volume is concerned with the detail of programmes which were broadcast on UK télévision on one day – Sunday, 25th September 1983. This chapter deals not with the programmes themselves but with the context and the environment in which those programmes were received by the viewing public1.

  • 2 Information about activities is based on «Daily Life in the 1980s», conducted by BBC Broadcasting (...)

2Sunday, 25th September 1983 was a typical autumn day throughout the United Kingdom: the weather was either «fair», «sunny», or «cloudy» depending on where you were. As on a typical autumn Sunday, the population engaged in a range of activities which reflected the more leisurely pace of the sabbath. Only around one in ten went to church2, though because it was Harvest Festival, the number attending a religious service would probably have been slightly above average. Apart from the inevitable domestic activities of food preparation and housework-both mainly done by women-there would have been a fair amount of gardening and «doing-it-yourself» – both mainly done by men (at least on Sundays). Only one in ten went for a walk, and fewer than one in twenty took a trip to the seaside or the country. But nearly one in two entertained at home, conjuring up images of tea and cake or even the traditional English Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

  • 3 Information on TV viewing is based on reports by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB).

3And, of course, most people watched television – over eight in ten3. Over the week as a whole, nearly everyone watched television and each man, woman and child in the country watched for just over nineteen hours – nearly three hours each day – figures which indicate the prominence of television in many people’s lives.

4In this paper I will look briefly at the experience of watching television – the technology, the social environment, and the process of selecting which programme to watch. Each of these factors helps to create the context in which viewers consume television and contributes to the way in which images and values – which are the subject of the major part of this book – are transmitted.


5Most people watch télévision in colour. By 1983, over eight in ten homes had a colour set-almost saturation – but only around one in three homes had more than one set (35%), under one in four had a remote control device on their sets, and only one in six had a video recorder, though this figure had shown rapid growth since 1981, and had doubled since 1982.

6There is much debate about how to offer to viewers the maximum choice of programming. It might be expected that the acquisition of a second television set offers some expansion of choice for the individual, an opportunity for each of us to have personal control over which channel we choose to watch. But what is the reality? In 1983,35% of homes had a second set – but a large proportion were in the bedroom. That contrasts with the United States where many second sets are found in the kitchen or other living accommodation. Then, over half the viewing of second sets occurs befor 6.00 pm, compared with well under a third for first set viewing. People are, therefore, viewing second sets at different times of the day – with breakfast time as an obvious example, but also during the daytime – compared with first set viewing, which is predominantly in the evening. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is comparatively little simultaneous use of both sets; and a very low simultaneous use of both sets for viewing of different channels – a situation which might be seen as reflecting the exercise of consumer choice. People are using the second set as a non-portable portable television, almost like having radios in different rooms – using them at different times of the day in different places, not necessarily to exercise a very strong or independent individual choice of channel, but possibly to exercise a definite choice of company!

7In 1983, video recorders were in around one in six homes. It is well known that people acquire and use video recorders mainly for time-shift rather than for the use of pre-recorded tapes. They are more common in larger families, with children, and are likely to be found in homes with other video technology. Contrary to expectations, perhaps, the presence of video does not significantly increase the amount of broadcast television viewed, although it does increase the use of TV, because pre-recorded videos that are bought or rented are viewed as an extra to broadcast television.

8People can use a video-cassette when they want to, and they are widely used. On average, in any week, 7 out of 10 owners actually record something off air, and the same number play something back. People on the whole tend to record the types of programme associated with sex stereotype – with men recording sport and documentaries and women more likely to record soap opéras and fictional output.

9When people have the choice they tend to «zip», that is, to miss out the commercials when replaying material recorded from television, with as many as 70% failing to view the centre commercial break recorded and 80% failing to view the commercials in the end break. This shows that people opt out of advertising on TV when they have the opportunity, in spite of what they say about the high quality and high entertainment value of some commercials.

10The remote control mechanism offers the viewer the chance to be in control without even leaving his or her chair. And access to a remote control results in 70 % more switches of three seconds or more, and even 44 % more switches lasting fifteen seconds or more – long enough to get some idea of what it is on the channel and make a decision about whether you want to watch it. Those with a remote control, interestingly, switch in and out of commercial breaks equally, though perhaps as much by chance as by design!

11It is important to remember that in spite of this technology, none of these innovations, nor even cable, has significantly increased the total amount of viewing. A major reason for this is the constraint of availability – or, rather, non-availability! Quite simply, people do not have infinite amounts of time to devote to watching television. Even the massive increase in television output over the past fifteen years – more channels and more hours per channel – has only marginally raised the average number of hours viewed per day per head of the population.


12«Availability to view» is a key determinant of viewing; no one can be a télévision viewer unless there is a set he or she could watch. The table below shows that for much of Sunday, most people (aged 4 or over) are available to watch television – a situation which contrasts with weekdays where most are not available to view until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The maximum – the peak – is, of course, between 5 and 8 o’clock in the evening, when 80% or more of the population is available to view. After that, there is a rapid decline because children go to bed from early evening on. During the week, peak availability is concentrated around 7 or 8 pm. (See table 1 on following page)

TABLE 1. Availability to watch television (Winter Sunday)

TABLE 1. Availability to watch television (Winter Sunday)

13Different population groups have different availability patterns. The table shows the pattern for older people (aged 65 or over), whose availability is above average for most of the day. During the week, old people are more available than others except for very early in the morning, because old people do not often get up very early, certainly not earlier than the rest of the population. But for the rest of week-days they are significantly more available to view than the rest of the population. On Sundays, the old get up earlier than the rest, who enjoy a lie-in. The unemployed also are more available. During the week, they tend to get up even later than the older people but they are available much later in the evening and are more likely to be up and awake until midnight and after, available to watch television. Even on a Sunday evening, at 11 pm two in three are available to watch TV.

14These patterns have very important implications for the types of people who will be watching any programme. Those who are most likely to be available will feature disproportionately in the audience – namely the old, the unemployed, the housebound, women to a greater extern than men, those in the lower social grades more than others. This applied to the programmes on Sunday, 25th September, 1983. Nearly one in three of the audience to The Winds of War was aged 55 or over, compared with one in four in the population at large, but for Wilfred and Eileen four in ten was in this age group, rising to one in two for Songs ofPraise, which attracted very few young people (many of whom would be listening to the Pop Chart Show on BBC’s Radio 1 at the time). The Songs of Praise audience is also heavily biased to the less advantaged, DE group which includes the working class, the unemployed and the retired.

15 Shipwreck, following the Radio 1 Pop Chart Show, attracted a well distributed audience, of whom one in five were children, aged 15 or under, and one in four aged 55 or over. The audiences on Sunday tend to be more representative of the population than Table 2 is missing weekday audiences, because people are generally more available, but even on a Sunday, the old are well represented in the audience. (See table 2).



(1) Social grade: ABC1 = Middle class/White collar worker;
C2 = skilled blue collar worker;
DE = unskilled blue collar worker and those dependent on State benefit.

16The size of audiences on 25th September 1983 followed the familiar Sunday pattern. Few people watched television before lunchtime, reflecting both availability (earlier) and programme choice (later). From 1 p.m., the audience grew steadily from 2.9 million to 8.7 million by 4.00 p.m., reaching a peak of 20.9 million at 8.30 p.m. This, of course, is less than half the total population, (of around 53 million aged 4 +) so even the combined appeal of four channels failed to attract the majority of potential viewers. This seems contrary to a general impression that at peak viewing time virtually the whole population is glued to a TV set.

TABLE 3. TV Viewing

TABLE 3. TV Viewing

17Of those programmes which will become very familiar as you read on, those with the largest audiences, not surprisingly, occured in the evening:

TABLE 4. Programme Audiences

TABLE 4. Programme Audiences

18Another implication of the patterns of availability is for viewer «loyalty» across the programmes of a series. People do not lead regular lives; their pattern of behaviour varies from week to week. It follows that some of those who watched last week will not be available this week. And others will for some reason decide, or chance, to be not watching or to be watching another channel. Contrary to what people like to believe about themselves, the number who watch all the episodes in a series is a small proportion of those who saw any of it. That, of course, is the bonus to programme-makers of this constant turnover – that, because the audience is changing from week to week, in spite of an apparent stability in the size of the audience, the number who saw any part of the series will be much higher than the audience to any one programme. So, over a period of time, large numbers will have dipped into even a «minority» programme and nearly everyone will have seen a popular prime-time series.


19Professionals involved in television production cherish a belief that the audience is deliberately and carefully choosing to watch their programme. That may be true for some of the people some of the time. But from the information we have, for a lot of the people a lot of the time the choice is less purposive, and, indeed, is frequently haphazard, depending on a wide range of facture including, family pressures, and general lifestyle.

20First, people carry very little firm information in their heads about what is on television. Out of the ten programmes in prime-time on the average evening on each channel the average viewer will only accurately recall about two or three. They will make quite a lot of guesses but they will be accurate in terms of time and title or even type in a very small proportion of programmes. They will perhaps remember one key programme, the one they are interested in that evening, and one of the news bulletins. There are many, many last minute decisions to view. We know that over nine in ten sometimes check a newspaper or programme magazine on the day for evening programmes; that for a particular film, sometimes as many as three out of every four of the people who are watching did not know the name of the film until that very day. In some cases they know that there will be a film. But viewers often do not know specifically which film it is going to be. For light entertainment programmes, one in three viewers did not know in advance that the particular programme they were actually watching was going to be on. These results certainly undermine the model of the rational television viewer who makes a careful selection of each day’s viewing in advance and plans life accordingly.

21Viewers also have strong channel associations. Very often this is operating to influence their channel choice and direct it. In a situation where a high proportion of the public think, wrongly, that the BBC broadcast the more intellectual Jewel in the Crown and ITV broadcast the more popular Thorn Birds, they are going to be making decisions in a line with their expectations of the four channels. BBC output is generally regarded as rather more serious and solid thant ITV’s and, therefore, less likely to be turned to when the viewer wanted to be relaxed and entertained. In the process, of course, viewers are often unaware of and miss programmes they might enjoy.

22Our viewers are now sitting in front of the set. Many descriptions of television viewing imply a concentrated attentiveness. The table shows the proportion of TV viewers who are doing something else during each of the time periods on an autumn Sunday, such as 25th September, 1983. At 5 o’clock, perhaps not surprisingly, nearly two in three of viewers are also engaged in other activities in that half hour period. But even at prime-time, at 8 pm, half of viewers are actually also doing something else.

TABLE 5. Other Activities While Watching TV

TABLE 5. Other Activities While Watching TV

23This level of activity hardly reinforces the common impression that television dominates the viewer. Indeed, although these figures continue to be higher than comparable figures for radio, it seems that the television, like the radio, has became a «background» to other activities – or, at least, some of the time.

24Such bald statistics tell us little about the quality of the viewing experience. It is, however, interesting that at prime-time, women are significantly more likely to be doing what is categorised as “domestic work” than are men. It probably follows that, on average, women are in position to devote less attention to viewing than are men; though, doubtless, women also have their favourite programmes to which they give the maximum attention possible.

25What do we know about the viewing experience and the extent to which television commands attention? In the BBC’s research department, a special project was carried out to measure the extent of viewers’attention. We included a large number of individual programmes, and immediately after the programmes had finished phoned viewers about their experience of those programmes. This information was combined into categories in the table below. Around a half of viewers did not see the film that they were watching all through. 44% had not seen that episode of the serial and nearly 40% had not seen the soap opera all the way through. Many people missed the beginning of the programmes amidst the hurly-burly of family life, relying on the introductory music to remind them to get into the room as soon as they could. Quite a high proportion were doing something else, and the extent to which people will be doing something else depends on the time of day and other things going on in the home, as well as the appeal and attraction of the programme itself. At some times of day it is virtually impossible to command a high level of attention such is the general level of activity in the average home. What is particularly interesting is the low proportion of people who nonetheless considered that they had been distracted from the programme by the other things they were doing. These are very low, perhaps reflecting the fact that people have a fairly low expectation that they will pay attention to TV programmes. Not that television is quite «visual wallpaper», but people learn very well how to grasp the story from very few dues. It is reported that in the United States some viewers use their remote control simultaneously to watch several programmes and are interested only in the start and the end of each and not at all in the development of the plot! This process requires a form of mental gymnastics for which there would have been little need before the age of multi-channel television!

TABLE 6. Watching TV - Attention?

TABLE 6. Watching TV - Attention?

26The purpose of this brief description is not to convince you that watching television is always a marginal activity for the viewer. What I hope it has done is to underline the robustness and common-sense with which most people generally approach television and the extent to which people use television rather than it using them. Hopefully this will put into some kind of perspective the likely effect of the images and values communicated by the output on Sunday, 25th September 1983!


1 I would like to acknowledge all the help I have received in writing this paper from the BBC’s Broadcasting Research Department.

2 Information about activities is based on «Daily Life in the 1980s», conducted by BBC Broadcasting Research Department and published by BBC Data Publications.

3 Information on TV viewing is based on reports by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB).

Table des illustrations

Titre TABLE 1. Availability to watch television (Winter Sunday)
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Légende (1) Social grade: ABC1 = Middle class/White collar worker;C2 = skilled blue collar worker;DE = unskilled blue collar worker and those dependent on State benefit.
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Titre TABLE 3. TV Viewing
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Titre TABLE 4. Programme Audiences
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Titre TABLE 5. Other Activities While Watching TV
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Titre TABLE 6. Watching TV - Attention?
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Responsable de recherche à la BBC

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1989

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