Age and Social Activity As Correlates of Television Orientation: a Replication and Extension

Rose L. Johnson, Temple University
ABSTRACT - As individuals age, the amount of their social contact and activity decreases. Television viewing offers a substitute for social contact and an alternative means of obtaining information and entertainment. This study examines chronological age, subjective age, and indicants of social activity as correlates of television orientation and viewership. Findings suggest that age is strongly correlated with television orientation and viewership. The predictive value of social activity is less clear, but some evidence is provided that less social acitivty leads to increased television viewing and a more positive orientation toward the medium.
[ to cite ]:
Rose L. Johnson (1993) ,"Age and Social Activity As Correlates of Television Orientation: a Replication and Extension", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 257-261.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 257-261


Rose L. Johnson, Temple University

[This research was funded in part by a grant from the Media Research Club of Chicago. The author gratefully acknowledges their support.]


As individuals age, the amount of their social contact and activity decreases. Television viewing offers a substitute for social contact and an alternative means of obtaining information and entertainment. This study examines chronological age, subjective age, and indicants of social activity as correlates of television orientation and viewership. Findings suggest that age is strongly correlated with television orientation and viewership. The predictive value of social activity is less clear, but some evidence is provided that less social acitivty leads to increased television viewing and a more positive orientation toward the medium.


Television viewing is America's predominant leisure activity, occupying seventy-five percent of our mass media time and as much as forty percent of our total leisure time. It is estimated that Americans spend more time watching television than engaging in any other activity except sleep and work (Comstock et al. 1978; Real, Anderson, and Harrington 1987).

One group of viewers for whom television may be particularly important is the elderly. Elderly viewers show greater consumption of television and other mass media than younger adults (Stephens 1981). In addition, recent recognition of the growth and economic potential of the elderly market has made it an increasingly attractive target for advertisers.

Changes in lifestyle associated with aging may be responsible for the increase in the importance of mass media in general (and television, particularly) as a source of entertainment and information (Graney 1975a; Donohew, Palmgren, and Rayburn 1987). Thus, it becomes important to consider not only chronological age but also age-related social variables. Rubin (1985) suggests that attention to life-position variables such as viewer mobility and social interaction can provide improved indicators of media use across the lifespan.

Media Use and Social Activity

As individuals age, their relationships with various social institutions undergo change. For example, individuals retire, their physical ability to engage in certain activities declines, their children grow up and leave home, and their spouses and friends die. Activity theory suggests that life satisfaction among the elderly is greatest when a socially active lifestyle is maintained (Havighurst and Albrecht 1953). To maintain an active and satisfying lifestyle, leisure activities often are sought and adopted to substitute for activities associated with those roles that are lost (Graney and Graney 1974; Havighurst and de Vries 1969). After retirement, for example, an individual may increase involvement with a church or other religious organization or may join a senior citizen's center. Another common substitution activity is use of mass media (Graney and Graney 1974).

There is some suggestion that the basic motivation for media use is a need for social contact (Finn and Gorr 1988; Nordenstreng 1970). Relationships between television viewers and television characters can resemble interpersonal relationships in many ways; we come to "know" television personalities and develop bonds of intimacy with them (Rubin and McHugh 1987). This is seen in the viewer who "coaches" players on television game shows or shares the lives of characters in a soap opera or evening drama.

Of the media available, television seems to be particularly important to the elderly consumer. Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) arrayed traditional media along a "social presence" continuum C indicating the degree to which the medium permits users to experience others as being psychologically present. They indicate that face-to-face communication is seen as having the greatest social presence, followed by audio-plus-video, audio-only, then print media. To compensate for loss of personal contacts, the elderly may turn to the medium offering the greatest social presence. Evidence exists that mass media usage is highest among those elderly with the least social interaction (Rahtz, Sirgy, and Meadow 1989; Rubin 1985).

In addition to the social value of television, audience gratifications are also derived from media content (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch 1974). Numerous typologies have been developed to explain the gratifications audiences derive from television. However, researchers typically are able to identify a dichotomy of entertainment-related versus information-related gratifications which seem to underly most expressed motives (Comstock 1980; Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch 1974; c.f., Donohew, Palmgren, and Rayburn 1987).

The information value of the media may be particularly important to older viewers because of their loss of personal contacts (Graney 1975a; Graney and Graney 1974). Local news and information which at one time may have been obtained in the workplace is sought by the elderly from newspapers and television (Kubey 1980). Again, this provides a way for adults with reduced social contacts to keep in touch with society.

Despite the evidence of age-related changes in media use and orientation, chronological age has its limitations as an explanatory variable. It is not a cause of change itself, but rather, an index of biological, psyhcological, and social factors which lead to change. Especially among older adults, individuals at a given chronological age are likely to show vast differences in ability and behavior (Schonfield 1974). Examining more directly the causes of change may provide researchers with an improved understanding of consumer behavior.


Rahtz, Sirgy, and Meadow (1989) provide a picture of the elderly television viewer. They suggest that among the elderly, there is a positive relationship between age and television orientation and that television orientation also is related to social and socio-psychological variables such as unemployment, income, education, morale, concern for one's personal and financial well-being, perception of respect for the elderly, and activity level. The purpose of this study is to provide a replication and extension of that earlier work.

A first contribution of this study is an expansion of the population examined. We can learn much from studies of the elderly population. However, studying the elderly population in isolation limits our ability to generalize findings or to determine the extent to which marketing strategies developed for a wider group may be appropriate or inappropriate for the elderly. This study will examine the correlates of television within the adult population overall.



A second contribution is an expansion of the evaluation of television orientation itself. While acknowledging the importance of television for both information and entertainment, Rahtz, Sirgy and Meadow (1989) examine correlates of only the entertainment dimension. The current study will provide insight into correlates of both the entertainment and information dimensions of television orientation.

This study expands on previous research by considering not only chronological age but also subjective age. Considering an individual's self-percieved age has increased appeal over chronological age since a subject's perception of his or her age is likely to be more closely related to behavioral change than is the passing of time itself (cf., Stephens 1991). For example, a senior citizen who is healthy and active is likely to have a younger perceived age than one who is limited in activity or social contact. The two individuals may also differ in the amount and content of their television viewing.

As in Rahtz, Sirgy, and Meadow (1989) a number of social activity variables are examined in this study. Loss of a spouse and having children leave home will impact social interaction in the home. Retirement, unemployment, or part-time employment will limit workplace interactions. Other social interactions may be indicated by church attendance, the number of organizations to which one belongs, and the number of personal friends.

Finally, this study utilizes measures of television viewership as well as television orientation. This will allow an examination not only of the relationship between age, social activity, and actual behavior, but also of that between television orientation and viewing.



Data were collected from 148 adults aged 26 to 90. The mean age within the sample was 59. Subjects were contacted through churches, senior citizens centers and retirement homes, and neighborhood and social organizations. Groups were asked to participate in a study of attitudes toward television and various types of programming; a monetary incentive was provided to encourage participation. As part of a larger study, subjects watched a video consisting of two program segments with embedded commercial material. They were then asked to complete a survey including general attitudes toward television, responses to the specific elements viewed, and lifestyle and demographic data.


Television orientation is defined by Rahtz, Sirgy and Meadow (1989) as "a disposition to use (or rely on) television for entertainment and information-gathering purposes" (p. 10). The television orientation scale used here was adapted from that earlier study. Items referring specifically to the elderly or to health issues were generalized to hold relevance for the entire population (for example, "television shows older people the way they really are" was changed to "television shows people the way they really are"). These changes were made to increase the relevance of the scale to the entire adult population and to reflect the belief that the elderly are interested in maintaining contact with the society at large rather than just the elderly segment. In addition, three items were added to the scale. Scale items are provided in Table 1.

Rahtz, Sirgy and Meadow (1989) found that the television orientation scale contained two related but distinct dimensions. A common factor analysis in this study confirmed the expected factor structure. Scale items and factor loadings are provided in Table 1. The two dimensions, information gathering (INFO) and entertainment seeking (ENTTAIN), explained 46 percent of the total variance in the measures. [This labeling represents a departure from Rahtz, Sirgy, and Meadow (1989). The previous study labeled the second dimension "USAGE." The change provides greater consistency with their conceptualization of television orientation as a reliance on television for entertainment and information gathering, and also reflects changes and additions to the original scale intended to more clearly capture the entertainment value of the medium.]

The Cronbach's alpha reliabilities of the INFO and ENTTAIN scales were .80 and .69 respectively. Because of the suggestion in previous research that television is more important to the elderly than to younger viewers for both its informtaion and entertainment value, both measures were used in the further analyses.

Television viewership was measured by two open-ended questions: (1) about how many hours of television do you watch in an average week, and (2) about how many hours of television did you watch yesterday. Average daily viewership was calculated as weekly viewing divided by seven. Television USAGE was calculated as the mean of average daily viewership and viewership on the preceding day. This was done to minimize noise in the measures due to likely rounding in the weekly measure and the effect of day of survey participation in the daily measure. The two items composing the USAGE scale had a correlation of .74.



Subjective age was measured via the Kastenbaum, Derbin, Sabatini, and Artt (1972) four item personal age scale. This is the same as the cognitive age scale used by Barak and Schiffman (1981) and Stephens (1991) with the exception that items are open-ended. The open ended format was preferred since it allows greater precision in responses than does a decade checklist. Also, in an earlier study in which both question formats were used, the open-ended format seemed to be less confusing for older subjects. The four items had a reliability of .93. Subjective age (SUBJAGE) was calculated as the average of the four items.

Chronological age was computed as 1991 minus response to the question "In what year were you born?"

Indicants of social interaction included: (1) LIVE C with whom the subject was currently living (spouse and children, spouse only or children only, with others, or alone); (2) WORK C employment status (fulltime, part-time, retired or unemployed); (3) CLUBMEM C the number of clubs or organizations to which the subject belonged; (4) CHURCH C frequency of church attendance; and (5) FRIENDS C the number of friends reported. Because number of friends had an extremely skewed distribution (the median response was 12; however, 9 percent of subjects reported having 99 or more friends), this variable was recoded into six categories. These items were suggested by other studies of social aging (c.f., Conner, Powers, and Bultena 1979; Graney and Graney 1975b).


Table 2 provides a summary correlation matrix for the variables studied. The information and entertainment components of television orientation were highly correlated (r=.615; p<.01). That is, it seems that individuals with a stronger television orientation seek both information- and entertainment-related gratifications. In addition, both components of television orientation were significantly correlated with television usage (r=.324; p<.01 and r=.474; p<.01 for INFO and ENTTAIN respectively).

As expected, age and subjective age were significantly correlated with each other (r=.902; p<.01) and with television orientation and usage. In each case, subjective age was more highly correlated with the television orientation and usage measures than was chronological age; however, the differences in correlation coefficients were very small (less than .01). Thus, contrary to expectation, the measurement of subjective age seems to hold little additional power to explain television viewing.

Overall there was some support for the suggestion that decreased social activity would lead to greater television orientation and usage. CLUBMEM was negatively related to INFO (r=-.188; p<.05) and ENTTAIN (r=-.223; p<.01), but was not significantly correlated with television usage. WORK was significantly related to both ENTTAIN and USAGE; however, this relationship may be caused by the greater availability of leisure time as well as by decreased social interaction. LIVE, FRIENDS, and CHURCH were not significantly related to television orientation or viewing behavior.

It was suspected that LIVE may not truly approximate an interval variable with respect to amount of social interaction; therefore, its relationship to television orientation and usage was also examined via analysis of variance. Once again, a significant effect failed to emerge. That is, there was no difference across LIVE categories (with spouse and children, spouse or children, others, or alone) on INFO, ENTTAIN, or USAGE.

WORK and CHURCH both showed significant correlations with age in this study. From an activity theoretic standpoint, relationships between age and the social variables are to be expected. However, the effect of the social variables which is independent of age is also of interest. To further investigate the relationship between social activity and television orientation and usage, first order partial correlations, controlling for chronological age, were examined.

After controlling for age, CLUBMEM maintained a negative relationship with INFO and ENTTAIN (r=-.229 and -.273, respectively; for both, p<.01). Further, CHURCH was negatively related to television USAGE (r=-.189; p<.05). These findings give additional support to the idea that decreased social activity will lead to increased television orientation and viewing. The full results of these analyses are contained in Table 3.




The results of this study largely confirm the findings of Rahtz, Sirgy, and Meadow (1989). Strong support is provided for the importance of age, both chronological and subjective, as a predictor of television orientation. An additional step is taken in demonstrating the existence of strong relationships between age and television usage and between television orientation and television usage.

Only moderate support is provided for the existence of a relationship between social interaction and television orientation and usage. However, it is possible that different types of activity or different measures would have produced higher correlations with television orientation and usage. The low levels of correlation among the social interaction measures also signals a need for concern about their construct validity. Future research into the components of social aging is recommended.

Additional research is recommended to examine the differential importance of entertainment- versus information-motives for television viewing. While this study showed a strong correlation between information and entertainment orientations, ENTTAIN tended to have stronger correlations with age and activity measures. Rubin (1983) identified two television types: those who used the medium primarily for entertainment and those who used the medium primarily for information.

Television broadcasters provide information and entertainment services to the viewing public. In addition, they provide advertisers with a medium for reaching potential consumers. Broadcasters have a strong viewing segment in the elderly, and a group which seeks both information- and entertainment-oriented programming. An improved understanding of consumers' attitudes and television usage has great practical value, since to the extent that consumer viewing patterns and preferences are understood, both viewers and advertisers can be better served. Identifying more specific content desires of older viewers, then, may be an important media goal.

The results of this study may provide guidance not only for broadcasters, but also for public policy makers and others concerned with the information and entertainment needs of the elderly. Greater orientation toward and usage of television may have implications for how individuals respond to other aspects of their world. Shrum et al. (1991) indicate that as viewing increases, perceptions or reality may be distorted toward life as portrayed on television. Elderly viewers may be particularly susceptible to stereotyped images and portrayals of violence on television. Providers of social services to the elderly may seek to counteract these images.

The evidence seems clear that television usage and the psychological orientation toward television increases with age. As the proportion of the elderly within the population increases, so will the importance of television. Increased emphasis on the news and entertainment programming desired by older viewers will enhance the appeal of this medium to an important market segment.


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