In-Home Observations of Television and Vcr Movie Rental Viewing


Dean M. Krugman and Yasmin Gopal (1991) ,"In-Home Observations of Television and Vcr Movie Rental Viewing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 143-149.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 143-149


Dean M. Krugman, University of Georgia

Yasmin Gopal, University of Georgia

[The authors would like to thank the National Association of Broadcasters for partially funding this research.]

In-home observations were conducted for both traditional broadcast viewing and VCR movie rental viewing. Results show that television consumption changes as VCR movie rentals enter the home. VCR movie rental viewers pay more attention to the screen and are less apt to participate in other social or individual activities.

The purpose of this study is to investigate television consumption in order to determine if VCR movie rentals differ from traditional broadcast viewing. The study provides a framework for defining viewing, a technique for assessing viewing and the implications of viewing change. Focus groups were used to generate relevant characteristics of both preparation and viewing. Following the focus groups, in-home observations were employed to measure both the preparation for and the actual viewing of traditional broadcast programming and VCR movie rentals.


The major commercial measurement of television viewing has been the rating system. People meters, in use by Nielsen since 1987, automatically record the channel to which a set is tuned, and rely on viewers to punch in when they start watching a program and punch out when they stop. People meters as a measurement system leave the concept of "viewing" open to interpretation. Viewing is a multifaceted process that is not all or nothing. It is clear that mechanical or diary measures will not be able to capture the total viewing experience.

Activities and Attention to the Set

One research strategy has been to define television viewing as an activity that takes place within a range of other individual and family activities. Earlier work, using both surveys and observations, concluded that television viewing is not a singular behavior but, one that encompasses many other activities, individual as well as group (Bechtel, Achelphol and Akins 1972). Morely (1988) stated that watching television cannot be assumed to be a one-dimensional activity. He argued that more investigation is needed to understand what the act of television viewing entails. Lindlof, Shatzer and Wilkinson (1988), used personal interviews and in-home observations to research different viewing styles. In addition to focused viewing, they found "monitoring"--when a separate activity is pursued in the viewing vicinity with the television engaged as a secondary source of interest. They also found "idling," which is regarded as a temporary use of television between other activities.

The second strategy has defined television viewing by measuring attention to the screen or the length of time audience members look at the set. Laboratory and in-home studies are used to measure visual orientation to the screen. Thorson, Zhao and Friestad (1987) used a viewing room, structured to create a natural or realistic viewing environment, to film eyes-on-screen. Calvert and Scott (1989) used a hidden video camera in a viewing room to measure the number of times children had their eyes directed to the screen. Anderson (1986) used video recordings in the home to measure visual orientation or how long individuals look at the set. Collet and Lamb-(1986) also used video recordings in the home to measure the amount of looking at the screen and other activities which occurred during both commercial breaks and programming.

It is clear that two of the main strategies used to study viewing are social and individual activities taking place during viewing and the time spent looking at or being visually oriented towards the screen. Recent work has argued that further definitions of television viewing need to account for a fuller explanation of viewing behavior, including both activities during viewing, and visual orientation to the set. Krugman (1989b) argued that more explanation was needed regarding how audiences look, listen, and talk during television viewing. He noted the need for better explanations regarding the viewing environment, making a careful distinction between monitoring and watching.

VCR Viewing and VCR Movie Rental Viewing

VCR movie rental viewing is of growing importance. In 1988, an estimated $5.7 billion were spent on video rentals. The estimated number 5 of movie rentals for the first 6 months of 1989 was j 2.7 billion. Almost all VCR homes (91%) rent at least one tape per year and half rent from once a week to twice a month, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau (AAAA Media Newsletter, June, 1989). VCR users indicate that the number one benefit of having a VCR is movie rentals (National Demographics and Lifestyles, 1986). VCR owners have been found to be heavy movie viewers of both pay cable and rental movies (Murray and White 1987).

Compared to other kinds of viewing, VCRs provide greater control over both program selection and scheduling (Krugman and Childers 1989; Kim, Baran and Massey 1988; Murray and White 1987). It is quite possible that VCR rentals have created a genre' of viewing that is different from traditional broadcast or standard cable viewing. Studies indicate that viewing of VCR rental movies can provide a qualitatively different viewing experience than that of traditional broadcast programming. Lull (1988) concluded that a VCR movie has much greater status as a viewing event than does regular television. VCR movie viewing has been associated with socializing or getting together with family and friends (Morgan 1989, Rubin and Bantz 1987). The opportunity for greater socializing is confirmed by the fact that more individuals are in the room for a movie rental than for traditional television or home-recorded (time-shifted) VCR tapes (Sims 1989).


The central issue of the study is to investigate the viewing process for VCR movie rentals and traditional television viewing. "Viewing" is broken down into the in-home preparation to view, activities during viewing and, visual orientation during viewing.

The over-arching research question is: Do individuals alter or structure their viewing environment for VCR movie rentals differently than they structure the viewing environment for traditional television? Scholars have argued that we need a broader understanding of the television viewing environment and a better definition of how individuals actually view (Krugman 1989b; Lull 1988). In an era marked by changing media services and viewing habits, understanding the viewing process is becoming increasingly important. The following gives a brief rationale and states each research question.

Research indicates that VCR viewing is more control and selection oriented than traditional broadcast fare (Kim, Barren and Massey 1988; Rubin and Bantz 1987). Therefore, once the programming has been obtained the viewing process will become more active and focused. In order to get ready to view, audience members should take more directed action.

R1. Do VCR movie rentals require viewers to spend more time preparing to view when compared with traditional television viewing?

Because VCR movie rentals are more directed and goal oriented, viewers should participate in fewer activities that compete for their attention. Prior research indicates that television viewing styles can be either focused viewing, idling between activities or monitoring when engaging in a competitive activity (Lindlof, Shatzer and Wilkenson 1988; Lull 1988).

R2. Will fewer competitive activities take place during VCR movie rental viewing than during traditional television viewing?

It is logical to assume that viewers of such programming will be more visually oriented to the set and not as easily distracted as when watching traditional television. Lin (1988) suggested that VCR rentals are akin to a home video theater. Under such circumstances viewers may adopt behaviors that are similar to going to a movie theater, paying closer attention to the programming.

R3. Will viewers will be more visually oriented to the screen during VCR movie viewing than during traditional television viewing. Will viewers have their eyes on the screen a greater proportion of the time during VCR rental viewing when compared to traditional television viewing.


The research plan included: 1) five focus groups, and 2) eighteen in-home observations followed by a final focus group to assess reactivity.

Focus groups

Five focus groups were conducted. Subjects were recruited from a list purchased from a video rental business with two-locations. The business had been in operation since 1982 and was the first such enterprise in the area. Both stores were located in a two county area with a population of 125,000 residents in the Southeastern United States.

Subjects were recruited by telephone and paid $15 to participate. All groups lasted between 1 1/2 and 2 hours. Group discussions allowed for an understanding of viewing characteristics and preparation to view.

The groups were phenomenological because they provided a basic familiarity with the language, phrases and terms that individuals use to describe the viewing process (Goldman and McDonald 1987). The descriptions were extremely valuable in determining the in-home observation formats and coding sheets. Characteristics were generated for: 1) activities and behaviors occurring in preparation for and during traditional television viewing, 2) activities and behaviors occurring in preparation for VCR movie rental viewing, 3) activities and behaviors that take place during traditional television viewing and 4) activities and behavior that take place during VCR movie rental viewing.

Two final focus groups were conducted to determine if specific characteristics and items previously generated were appropriate for both the in-home observations and mail questionnaire. Group sizes were 15 and 9 respectively.

In-home Observations

In-home observations provided measures of (1) preparation to view both traditional television and VCR movie rentals, (2) activities during viewing for both traditional television and VCR movie rentals, and (3) visual orientation represented by a timed measure of eyes-on-screen.

Eighteen homes in the Southeastern area described in the previous sections, participated in the study. Each home was visited twice by the same observer. One observation took place during VCR movie rental viewing and one observation took place during traditional television viewing. Three different types of observations were collected, activities prior to viewing, activities during viewing and eyes-on-screen during viewing.

A convenience sample of homes which met the following criteria was used: owned a VCR, were on the list of a video rental store and lived in a neighborhood deemed safe to send an observer. Families were paid a fee of $40.00 to participate. Families were asked to select two periods when an observer could enter the home. During one period, participants were asked to select a time when they would normally view a VCR movie rental of their choice and sent a coupon for a free rental. During another period, participants were asked to select a time when they normally viewed traditional television. Observation periods lasted between 1-2 hours.

Coding sheets developed from the focus groups, listed and categorized anticipated in-home preparation and viewing activities. The formats were pretested over a two-night period in one of the homes. Four doctoral students served as observers and were used to collect the data. Training sessions included reviewing the coding sheets and observational formats from the pretest.

Observers visited the participant's home, approximately fifteen minutes before the program began or the rental was to be played. During the initial visit this time was used for introductions answering any questions regarding the study and for filling out subject consent forms. It also gave the subjects time to settle down or get ready to view and allowed the observer the chance to make a mental note of any in-home preparations for viewing.

Observers were instructed to wait until offered a seat in the viewing room and if possible to avoid sitting on a couch with another individual. In all cases the observer was offered a seat and allowed to sit in a place that was not in the center of the room. If others in the room were snacking, observers accepted refreshments, when offered. This allowed the observer to appear more natural or consistent with the group.

Observers had a small clipboard that contained the coding sheets and two small chronometers. Coding sheets were used to record viewing behavior - one set for traditional television and one for VCR movie rentals. Observers also had a pre-viewing activity sheet.

As noted earlier, the recruited contact person usually served as the principal subject to be observed. Activities related to the viewing behavior of this individual and up to two others were recorded. However, for the analysis of viewing activities and eyes-on-screen, only the principal subject was taken into account.

An eyes-on-screen measure was also conducted. Three five-minute segments during the viewing of traditional television programming and VCR rental movies were used to measure if the subject was visually orientated to the set. These uninterrupted episodes were predetermined and set approximately thirty minutes apart. The five minute periods began at least five minutes into the program. The small chronometers were used to take these measures. The first was used as a running clock to determine when the five minute periods were to start and stop. The second served as a stop watch that was started at the beginning of the five minutes, stopped when the subject looked away from the set, and restarted when the subject's attention was back on the set. The timing chronometers were sensitive, responded to the slightest touch, and did not require the observer to constantly look down at the clipboard.

Following the second observation period, the principal subject was asked to fill out a short questionnaire pertaining to demographics and media ownership. Subjects were also asked to describe if and how the presence of an observer altered their viewing behavior.

A final focus group with four of the principal subjects was held after the observations were collected. The purpose of the group was to assess the amount and type of reactivity to the in-home observers. Participants were paid $20.



Out of the 18 principal viewers who participated in the study, only one was single. Eleven of the subjects were females and seven were male. Of the 17 married subjects, most were in the mid 30's to mid 40's age group (mean age was 38). All subjects had attended undergraduate college and seven had completed graduate education. Five of the subjects were homemakers, two were students and the remaining were professionals. Seventeen of the households had children. The number of children ranged from 1-3. Subjects were generally upscale in terms of income and lifestyle, with fifteen of the families reporting a total household income of over $45,000. In addition to owning a VCR, all households owned at least one color television. Fourteen of the households subscribed to a basic cable service, and six subscribed to at least one premium cable service.


Only a limited amount of preparation activity was observed prior to either traditional television or VCR movie rentals. Therefore, few differences between the two types of viewing were observed. During traditional television viewing, there was no visible preparation for viewing traditional television in five of the homes. In four homes subjects prepared something to drink. Other activities were either household chores including: tidying up or doing dishes, preparing kids for bed or putting them to bed, setting up the VCR to tape a show.

Five homes showed no overt signs of activity before the VCR movie rental. In six of the homes, subjects prepared either a drink or a snack. Three homes turned down the room lights.





Table 1 compares activities taking place during VCR movie rental and television program viewing. To be included as occurring, an activity had to take place at least once during the program. Percentages indicate the proportions of subjects who engaged in the activity; while the number in parenthesis indicates the actual count of subjects.

During the TV program, 28 percent performed a household chore, 39 percent read (mostly newspaper). Fifty-six percent had something to drink, and 39 percent ate a snack or candy. The average number of conversations related to the television program was 5.3, while the average number on topics other than the program was 5. It should be noted that a conversation was attributed to an individual only when it was initialed by that individual. Also, one conversation was differentiated from another only if there was at least a one-minute pause between the two. In other words, even if conversations between individuals continued for a long period without a one-minute break, it was counted as a single conversation. Conversations or questions directed to the observer that related to the project were not counted.

During VCR viewing, fewer household chores were taking place. Activities such as reading and writing were also at a minimum. More subjects snacked or ate their meal during VCR viewing than during TV viewing (56% for VCR, 39% for TV). The number of conversations during VCR viewing was limited for non-movie topics (3.44), but it was very high for those related to the movie (an average of 9.94). Interaction with children was the same for both types of viewing.





Five Minute View Times of Eyes-on-Screen

Table 2 shows the eyes-on-screen or visual orientation for the 18 principal subjects. As noted earlier, the measure determines the percentage of time a subject was looking at the set. The percentage is usually based on three separate five-minute viewing segments.

Percentages of visual orientation were calculated for each viewer for both television programming and VCR movies. Summing these percentages over all viewers, a composite figure based on the mean was derived for both television and VCR viewing. The mean eyes-on-screen for VCR viewing was 81.73 percent and for TV viewing was 60.71 percent. Moreover, there is a large difference in the amount eyes-on-screen varies across subjects. Six of the respondents have roughly equal view times. Five of the subjects have VCR view times that indicate 10 to 30 percent more eyes on screen. Seven of the subjects show 50 to 100 percent more eyes on screen for VCR movie rentals.

Measuring Reactivity

Following the second observation, respondents were asked to answer open-ended questions related to the presence of an observer. Respondents were asked, has my being here altered the way you view TV? If so, how? Eleven of the responses indicated no changes were made. Six responses stated that a limited amount of change took place. These respondents said they may have done more channel changing or would have been interrupted by their children more often had the observer not been present. One respondent noted a great deal of reaction to the observer. She stated that she was conscious of remaining in the same room due to the presence of the observer.

Respondents were asked the same question for VCR movie rental viewing. Eleven responses indicated no viewing change. One respondent mentioned that the family would have stopped the movie more often. Three indicated that they would not have watched with their children. Two of the respondents indicated that they would have rented the movie on a Saturday (the observation took place on a weekday). One stated that they would not have rented the tape at all.

Final Focus Group

A final focus group was held in order to assess reactivity to the in-home observers. The group consisted of four respondents who had been principal subjects during the in-home observations.

Respondents noted they "felt comfortable" with the observer and for the most part did not alter their behavior. One respondent noted that her son was made to stay in the television viewing room because the study was being conducted. Generally, the subjects were comfortable by the middle of the first night. Respondents knew they were being observed, but indicated they did not feel a need to alter their behavior. To a limited degree, the respondents felt the need to stay in the room.

Respondents could not tell what the observer was recording. Respondents were then shown the clipboard and the chronometers. No respondents had an idea they were being timed during the five-minute view periods.


In-home observation results indicate that more activities take place during the viewing of traditional television viewing than VCR movie rentals. Activities such as reading, housework and hobby-craft, which require attention and at least partially divert viewing from the screen, are much more likely to take place when viewing traditional television. Activities such as eating, drinking, or talking, which do not necessarily require as much visual attention, do not greatly differ between traditional television and VCR movie rental viewing.

In-home observations using timed measures of eyes-on-screen for the eighteen subjects indicate a greater visual orientation to VCR movie rentals than to traditional television. Across all subjects the mean eyes-on-screen was 82 percent for VCR movie rentals and 61 percent for traditional television. However, the viewing differences did not remain consistent for all subjects. One third of the subjects indicated no differences, approximately one third indicated differences of 10 - 30 percent and approximately one third indicated differences between 50 - 100 percent.

Results indicate that the way audience members view television varies dramatically in relation to the type of service consumed. Audience members structure their environment differently with respect to traditional television and VCR movie rentals. The viewing process for VCR rental movies is more active and consuming.

The eyes-on-screen measure shows that in the majority of cases VCR movie rental viewing is a more engaging process, whereby consumers pay more attention to the screen. Because fewer competing activities are taking place, there is more opportunity to pay closer attention to VCR movie rentals. This is confirmed by the in-home observations. When compared to VCR movie rental viewing, traditional television viewing has more monitoring than focused viewing.


The sample frame is a limiting factor. Respondents were middle class and well educated. The ability to observe families from other socioeconomic groups is a continual problem for in-home observations. A review of other television observations studies also reveals this bias (Stoneman and Brody 1983; Anderson 1986, and Lull 1982).

Meaningful differences in preparation activities were not found. A follow-up group meeting with observers revealed that subjects get ready before the observer arrives; therefore, there is less opportunity to observe such activities as housework, snack preparation or putting-the kids to bed.

In-home observations provided a method for measuring eyes-on-screen or visual orientation. It is important to note that subjects stated they could not tell what the observers were doing during the observations. Respondents noted that at times they felt the observer was making an occasional note but did not know they were being timed.

A problem associated with having only one observer is coder reliability. Other methods using video tape provide an opportunity to calculate intercoder reliability. The one coder technique does not allow for such a determination.

Although others have limited in-home observations to either one or two separate periods (Lull 1980, 1983; Stoneman and Brody 1983), it would no doubt be better to have been in each subject's home for more than two observation periods. During the focus group devoted to discussing reactivity to observers, subjects noted they began to get comfortable during the first observation and were even more comfortable during the second observation.


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Dean M. Krugman, University of Georgia
Yasmin Gopal, University of Georgia


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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